The Seven Lively Arts
by Gilbert Seldes

Tearing a Passion to Ragtime

(pages 67-80)

There is only one sense in which the word "rag" has any meaning in connexion with music, and that is not conveyed in the word "ragtime." Ragtime is not, strictly speaking, time at all; neither is tempo rubato: and eminently safe composers have been kno wn to score their music con alcuna Iicenza, which leaves the delicate adjustment of time to the performer. A certain number of liberties may be taken with ragtime, and beyond this point no liberties may be taken. Within its framework, ragtime is definite enough; and you must syncopate at precisely the right, the indicated and required moment, or the effect of the syncopation is lost. 

It is only when one looks at the songs that one realizes what ragtime means. For literally, the music, which has always been with us and yet arrived only yesterday, has torn to rags the sentimentality of the song which preceded it. The funeral oration for the popular song was preached in the preceding chapter. This is the coroner's inquest, with the probable verdict that the popular song was unintentionally killed by ragtime, which is in turn being slowly poisoned by jazz. A neat, unobtrusive, little m an with bright eyes and an unerring capacity for understanding, appropriating, and creating strange rhythms is in the foreground, attended by negro slaves; behind him stands a rather majestic figure, pink and smooth, surrounded by devils with muted brass and saxophones. They are Irving Berlin and 

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Paul Whiteman, and they will bear listening to. What is more, they will make listening a pleasure. 

It seems strange to speak of the great George M. Cohan as a disappointment in anything he has ever tried; but looking back at the early years of the century, when it was apparent that he would be our most popular song writer as well as our most popular everything else, suddenly calls to mind that our Georgie, the Yankee Doodle Dandy, just failed to make it. Irish wit and an extraordinary aptitude for putting into simple song the most obvious of jingo sentiments were not quite enough. The situation whic h Cohan faced at the time was beginning to be complicated: the ballad song was becoming a bore; the substitutes for it had failed to absorb rhythms fresh enough and swift enough to please the public. And between dawn and daylight ragtime was upon us. Enfin Berlin vient! How much ragtime had been sung and played before, no man may calculate; it had been heard in every minstrel show, and its musical elements were thoroughly familiar. What was needed was a crystallization, was one song which should take the whole dash and energy of ragtime and carry it to its apotheosis; with a characteristic turn of mind Berlin accomplished this in a song which had no other topic than ragtime itself. Alexander's Ragtime Band appeared with its bow to negro music and its introduction of Swanee River; 

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it was simple and passionate and utterly unsentimental and the whole country responded to its masterful cry, Come on and hear! Presently Waiting for the Robert E. Lee is heard-- a levee song and one would say that the South had already conquered; but Berl in is first of all a writer of rag and the Southern theme is dropped (the negro music remaining) while he gives the world two further dazzling rags: The International and The Ragtime Violin. Everybody's doing it was true of singing and dancing and-composi ng. For the day which was awakened with Alexander's Ragtime Band was a day of extraordinary energy and Skeleton Rags and Yiddische Rags and Pullman Porters' Balls, and everything that could be syncopated, and most things that could not, paid their quota t o ragtime. There have been periods equally definable: the time of the waltz song, of the ballad, of jazz. What makes the first rag period important was its intense gaiety, its naivete', its tireless curiosity about itself, its unconscious destruction of t he old ballad form and the patter song. The music drove ahead; the half-understood juggling with tempo which was to become the characteristic of our music led to fresh accents, a dislocation of the beat, and to a greater freedom in the text. For half a ce ntury syncopation had existed in America, anticipating the moment when the national spirit should find in it its perfect expression; for that half century serious musicians had neglected it; they were 
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to study it a decade later when ragtime had revealed it to them. 

The early rags were made to be sung and they were sung, universally. What the departing queen of Hawaii offered in Aloha Ohe was swiftly integrated into the existing form and On the Beach at Wai-ki-ki is a rag in every respect, using material which is foreign only in appearance. (The fact that ragtime can without offense adapt the folk song of nearly every nation-and is only absurd with Puccini and Verdi's worst when it takes them seriously--indicates how essentially decent an art ragtime is.) The nost algia which later came into Hawaiian songs does not exist in this first greatly popular song of those islands any more than it exists in the Robert E. Lee or in When that Midnight Chu-chu Leaves for Alabam'. Berlin himself was not untouched by the Hawaiia n scene and in The Hula-Hula he wrote a song Superior, in my mind, to Wai-ki-ki, yet never popular in the great sense. The rush and excitement of Wai-ki-ki aren't in The Hula-Hula; some one had told too much about the undulations of the dance and the sens uousness of the southern Pacific. Louis Hirsch, years later, did the same thing in 'Neath the South Sea Moon, a respectable piece of work. But it remained for Jerome Kern, a decade and more after Wai-ki-ki, to make another Hawaiian song popular. This was Ka-lu-a (out of Good Morning, Dearie) and in every way it showed cleverness and intelli- 

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gence. For it was not a song of Hawaii at all. It was produced in an Englishy garden, sung by women in hoopskirts surrounding Oscar Shaw in evening clothes; and it is all, all a longing for--I think it is a longing for Wai-ki-ki the song, as much as for t he beach. The old romantic properties are in the words, slightly set off in mockery by the premature and internal rhymes; they are suffused with memory and the music is purely nostalgic. It was not for nothing that Mr Kern wrote The Siren Song. 

The moment Hawaii faded out nothing was left but the South, and here the music began to drive the words with a hard hand and a high check. An observer unfamiliar with the nature of ragtime would conclude that the American people had a complex about nig ger mammies and that the sublimation thereof was in the popular song. The true explanation is simpler. The mother element is, of course, a sure-fire hit in the pictures and in song; but the nigger mammy enters for the same reason as cotton fields and pick aninnies and Georgia-because our whole present music is derived from the negro and most composers of popular songs haven't yet discovered that the musical structure is applicable to other themes as well. (George Gershwin's Walking Home with Angeline in Ou r Nell, Cole Porter's Blue Boy Blues, about the Gainsborough painting, and Berlin's Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil are examples of the transfer successfully accomplished, and 

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gratifying, too. Best of all is Limehouse Blues, by Philip Braham, a veritable masterpiece in the genre.) There exist a number of natural themes-slavery, the local scene (Swanee River), the cabin, the food, and the train whereby one arrives. The genius of Tin Pan Alley has worked upon this material, and in both words and music has been amazingly imitative, uninventive, and dull. Yet the idea of taking a theme and so handling it that the slightest variation from the preceding use of the same material shall give the effect of novelty and freshness is a sound one-we know from the history of Greek drama. Alas! there was little novelty and the tradition was never firm enough to bear what they did to it. Yet they had their reward, if they can accept it vicariou sly, for one of them, not at the beginning and not at the end, which is not yet, took the old material and fashioned a great song. His name is George Gershwin and the song which, before the blue-jazz age, achieves pre-eminence is Swanee. To have heard Al Jolson sing this song is to have had one of the few great experiences which the minor arts are capable of giving; to have heard it without feeling something obscure and powerful and rich with a separate life of its own coming into being, is--I should say it is not to be alive. The verse is simple and direct, with faint foreshadowings of the subtly divided, subtly compounded elements of the chorus where the name "Swanee," with a strong beat, 
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long drawn and tender, ushers in the swift passages leading to the repetition, slow again, of the name; and the rest of the song is the proper working out of a problem in contrasting cadences, and in dynamics. After the chorus, and in another key, there i s a coda, a restatement of the theme with a little more restraint, and then, surprisingly and gratefully, for the first time the introduction of the final bars of Swanee River. I analyze this song as if it could be taken apart and the essence of it remain ; the truth is that it bears inspection and is worth inspection because it has a strongly individual quality, a definite personal touch. Mr Gershwin has progressed' in his technical handling of syncopation, as in Innocent Ingenue Baby (not primarily a son g to be sung or for the dance, but to hear; it is musically the solution of a problem in pauses, and the answer is delicious) ; but in Swanee he is at his highest point, for he has taken the simple emotion of longing and let it surge through his music, he has made real what a hundred before him had falsified. He should "do it again." 

Swanee was popular, but by no means as popular as Some Sunny Day, a song by Mr Berlin which will simply not bear analysis. I hold Mr Berlin to be still the foremost writer of popular music in spite of it. Three years and a masterly technique separate t he two songs and Some Sunny Day is devilishly clever, but most of it isn't properly singable. It is 

See page 92. 

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a good dance tune; analyzed, it resolves itself into a weak treatment of Old Black Joe (clever Mr Berlin to take the first bar of the old verse for the first bar of his chorus) and a regrettable quotation again of Swanee River. The arrangement is neat, an d the inversion of the first bar halfway through the chorus, when the song has dribbled into meaningless fragments, has lost all intensity and is suddenly revived and refreshed, while the words of the first bar are repeated-that sufficiently indicates the master hand. The words are among Mr Berlin's weakest and it is hard to believe that at the same moment he was reveling in the two Music Box Revues, in Say It With Music and Pack Up Your Sins, which are superb. 

It is not entirely an accident that a consideration of the effect of ragtime on popular song begins and ends with Irving Berlin. For as surely as Alexander's Ragtime Band started something, Pack Up Your Sins is a sign that it is coming to an end. For t his tremendous piece of music simply cannot be sung; it baffled the trained chorus on its first appearance, it can hardly be whistled through, and, although the words are good, they aren't known. Ragtime is now written for jazz orchestra; three phrases oc cupy the time of two; four, five, and even six notes the time of two or three. The words which are becoming wittier than ever are too numerous, too jostled, to be sung, and the melodic structure with arbitrarily 

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changing beat baffles the voice and the mind as much as it intrigues the pulse and the heel. The popular song and the ragtime song are vanishing temporarily. But something terrible and wonderful has already taken their place. Already there is an indicatio n of how they will return and--I am tired of speaking of Mr Berlin, but I can't help it--Mr Berlin has indicated how and where. His All by Myself is in essence a combination of the sentimental song with ragtime-so it was sung by Ethel Levey. And it is pla yed with enthusiasm by jazz orchestras--a perceptible pleasure is ours from recognizing something entirely simple and sentimental weaving its way through those recondite harmonies. 

If the song returns in any way the ancient protest against its vulgarity will also return, and it is worth making up our minds about it now. The popular song takes its place between the folk song and, the art song. Of these the folk song hardly exists in America to-day: Casey Jones and Frankie and Johnny are examples of what we possess and one doesn't often hear them sung along country roads or by brown-armed men at the rudder in ships that go down to the sea. The songs of the Kentucky mountains (Engli sh in provenance) and the old cowboy songs are both the object of antiquarian interest they aren't as alive as the universal Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here or We Won't Go Home 'til Morning. If we refuse to call our ragtime folk music, 

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then we must face the fact that we are at a moment in history when folk songs simply do not occur. (Even the war failed to give us very much; it is interesting to note that besides Katy and Mr Zip, the songs written by the best and most expert of our comp osers, Berlin and Cohan, were both meant to be sung and were sung--and this took place in the midst of the change to the unsingable type.) At the opposite extreme is the art song-usually the setting and degradation of a poem written for its own sake and u sually--let us say dull. The composers of art songs are about fifty paces behind the symphonists and the symphonists are nearly nowhere. The result is that we aren't in any sense nourished by the writers of art songs and, since we are a musical people, fo r better or for worse we fall back on the popular song. It is to me a question whether we would be better citizens and more noble in the sight of God if we sang Narcissus instead of The Girl on the Magazine Cover. 

Once in a while something between the art and the popular song appears, and it is called My Rosary or The End of a Perfect Day, and it is unbearable. Because here you have a pretentiousness, a base desire to be above the crowd and yet to please (it is called "uplift," but it does not mean exalt) the crowd; here is the touch of "art" which makes all things false and vulgar. To be sure, these songs, too, are popular; the desire for culture is as universal as it is 

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depressing. And these are the only popular songs which are really vulgar. I will ask no one to compare them with the real thing. Compare them with false, trivial, ridiculous imitations of the real thing -it exists in some of the occasional songs which com posers are always trying and which hardly ever come off. I recall a song written about the Iroquois fire; another about Harry K. Thaw ("Just because he's a millionaire, Everybody's willing to treat him unfair"). Only the two songs about Caruso succeeded, and there never was a good one about Roosevelt. Here is one written for Jackie Coogan in Oliver Twist: 

When the troubles came so fast you kept on smiling, Like a sunbeam 'mid the clouds up in the sky; Though the rest were deep in crime You stayed spotless all the time Though they flayed you Till they made you Weep and cry. 

When your little heart was aching for a mother's tender love, 

Then the Lord looked down and heard you and blessed, you from above. 

Though they tried to make you bad You stayed good, dear little lad. 

Would God I could 

Be half as good 

As you 

Oliver Twist. 

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The music is just like that, too. Lower than this much lower, at least-the popular song never dropped. These songs never become actually, universally popular because the general taste is too high. And I cheerfully set the lowest example beside A Perfec t Day for comparison. One type is not obnoxious and the other is; one is common, the other vulgar; one is strong and foolish, the other silly and weak. The case for the popular song may as well rest in the solution of this dilemma as anywhere. 

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