The Day Thread of Novelty Rags

For most people, the ragtime genre is synonymous with the name Scott Joplin. Joplin was, of course, the undisputed master of the form, but he was far from its only major composer. Indeed, ragtime had an internal stylistic history of its own and had several subgenres, from the early cakewalk-based rags, through the classical ragtime of Joplin, to the proto-stride piano that evolved into traditional jazz.

Particularly fascinating to me is a style called novelty ragtime, which had its heyday in the 1920s, even as ragtime as a whole was starting to fall out of fashion. Novelty rags were a playful and highly complex form, usually a bit off-kilter and often featuring some kind of gimmick, like the imitation of non-musical sounds. The origins of this form lie, in part, in the invention of the piano roll. Earlier ragtime was sold as sheet music, so it was important to keep the piano writing within the capabilities of a wide audience of prospective customers. But composers who wrote piano rolls, to be played automatically by player pianos, didn’t have to reckon with the human imperfections of amateur players, allowing them to write music with strange rhythms and faster passages than what the average home pianist could handle. By the 1920s, the phonograph was also making more difficult music commercially viable, since it could be played by skilled professionals and then sold to the public.

The predecessor of the novelty rag is generally considered to be Felix Arndt’s “Nola”, which he wrote as an engagement gift for his wife in 1915. In the late 1910s, Charley Straight and Roy Bargy developed the form in the many piano rolls they wrote and recorded for the Imperial Piano Roll Company in Chicago.

But the biggest name in the novelty ragtime subgenre was undoubtedly Zez Confrey, whose 1921 “Kitten on the Keys”, inspired by the sound of his grandmother’s cat walking across the piano, is the paradigmatic example of the genre and inspired many imitators (including such blatant ones as “Dog on the Piano” and “Mouse in the Piano”). An arranger and performer of piano rolls for Imperial Piano Roll’s rival company QRS, Confrey went on to write quite a few more pieces in this genre, including great rags like “Nickel in the Slot” (inspired by a the sound of a nickel going into a nickelodeon) and “Dizzy Fingers”, which features both some interesting harmonic progressions and some juicy rhythmic enjambments.

Novelty ragtime sometimes sounded downright avant-garde. As a specimen of the more “out there” stuff, here’s “That Futuristic Rag” by Rube Bloom:

Nor did the did this subgenre consist exclusively of fast, lively pieces; here’s “Dream of a Doll” by Pauline Alpert, which despite its slower and more contemplative mood still exhibits the rhythmic and harmonic wildness that characterizes novelty ragtime. Like many composers of novelty rags, Alpert was classically trained, and you can hear some influence of impressionistic composers like Debussy here as well:

Ultimately, the popularity of novelty ragtime was just a brief blip in musical history, the last gasp of a genre that had already been eclipsed by hot jazz, stride piano, and Piedmont blues. It didn’t help that the rapid spread of the phonograph soon curtailed the commercial possibilities of piano roll music. Zez Confrey and his peers were soon consigned to obscurity1, and although ragtime experienced several revivals beginning as early as the 1940s, the focus was (quite reasonably) on Joplin and other “classical ragtime” composers like Joseph Lamb and James Scott. It was not until the big ragtime revival of the 1970s that there was renewed interest in novelty piano, and even today most of the large corpus of pieces by these composers is forgotten and unavailable on disc.

I’ll leave you with just one more, “Bluin’ the Black Keys” by Arthur Schutt, which has a reputation for being perhaps the most difficult of all novelty piano pieces: