Those Beautiful Rags

Those Beautiful Rags

American ragtime, a precursor of early jazz, exemplifies the ascendency of captivating musical elements—originating in African-American musical traditions—that contribute to the mass appeal of much popular music since the late nineteenth century. Ragtime, named for its “ragged,” syncopated rhythms, would peak in popularity toward the end of World War I.

Not coincidental was the emergence of ragtime during the Industrial Revolution when an expanding middle class was increasingly able to afford new technologies for the home and for business. A wide range of musical boxes, player pianos, nickelodeons, and early phonographs provided families and customers an available supply of the newest, most popular music of the day.

As a piano in the parlor became a middle-class status symbol, piano manufacturers were challenged to meet the intensified public demand. As a symbol, the piano represented disposable wealth, implying also the luxury of leisure time for practice and social enjoyment. The piano’s appeal, and the need for sheet music, transformed the music-publishing industry to produce inexpensive, popular tunes on short demand and in mass quantities. Publishers on “Tin Pan Alley” (a block of 28th Street in New York City between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, named for the constant jangling sounds emanating from live pianists, promoting new releases in the show windows of music publishers) churned out sheet music, and employed many talented artists to create stimulating and evocative covers for these compositions.

This exhibition features rare ragtime sheet music from the world-renowned Guinness Collection, and highlights a variety of mechanical musical instruments, such as the Seeburg “L” coin piano, and an early, coin-operated “jukebox” containing Edison cylinder records. Available at interactive listening stations are examples of early “ragged” and syncopated arrangements performed by musical machines. The mechanical instruments, audio kiosks, and provocative period illustrations on sheet music covers encourage visitors come away with a deeper appreciation of the art and the music of this uniquely American product.


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