Elvis didn’t invent horniness and hormones. Before jazz was “Jazz,” it was rock and roll. At least, it activated the same antibodies. Here’s Variety, after hearing the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in early 1917: “This ‘jaz’ thing sounds like a trio of musicians trying to draw business into a sideshow—it’s what would be called ‘stewed music,’ for you have to be that way to like it.” It was loud, raucous, deliberately crude. The ODJB boasted that they couldn’t read music, back in the days when any pro had to. Their first record, “Livery Stable Blues,” sold a million copies pretty much overnight. Kids went apeshit over it, their parents rubbed their temples and prayed it wouldn’t last.
But what about those parents? They weren’t always 39 years old. What were they pumping to, back when they were irresponsible? I mean, records had been around for a quarter century when the ODJB kicked off the jazz craze; the first platinum record came as early as 1903. The French Pathé company’s 1904 catalogue listed 12,000 different recordings, and Pathé was no more than a medium-sized fish. But until recently, if you didn’t collect 78s, these were by and large idle questions. Reissue labels have almost always drawn a line through 1917: before this ye shall not venture.
This has started to change—I don’t know why. Maybe the end of the century has brought in a new curiosity about its beginning. Maybe folks are drawn to ragtime (which is what we’re gonna talk about here) as the antithesis of pop in the age of MTV: all live, all acoustic, unironic and hype-free. Or maybe it’s just that every thing else old—jazz, blues, country—has been collected, processed, reissued, and marketed. In any case, at least a dozen labels, big and tiny, suddenly have compilations out of as sorted rags, cakewalks, marches, minstrel skits, banjo solos, gospel quartets—anything they can scrape together off old 78s or Edison cylinders.
My favorite, From Cake-Walk to Ragtime (another one of the French Frémeaux label’s fine two-CD compilations) is a Let’s Go guide for what was hot in the days before mustard gas and income tax. Traveler’s advisory: everything on it was recorded acoustically, using a process not unlike the two-juice-cans-and-a-string that kept kids busy back in the dreary days before Nintendo. If Guided by Voices is low-fi, this is no-fi—in its raw state, a little strip of midrange wedged between a nonexistent bottom and an ocean of hiss. But Frémeaux have done their digital best with what they had, and most of it cleans up surprisingly nice—you can learn to deal. And, lo and behold, it rocks.
With one blazing exception, the coolest stuff here is the earliest, from 1898 to about 1908: cakewalks, mostly, and banjo rags. The cakewalk was the techno groove of the Shirtwaist Age: a peculiar little wiggle that oscillates between rag and march, funk and rock and roll. Let “Whistling Rufus,” cut here by Sousa’s Band (with out Himself—making records was OK for the band, but he couldn’t bear it), stand for all: it starts off with a herky-jerky bit of ragtime syncopation, then tips over into a flat-out stomp, then back again, and so on. The game here is rhythm—everyone pulls together; no improvising. It’s got a lot of pep.
When we think about ragtime, we think of pianos. But the piano recorded badly; record companies preferred their rags on the banjo, which didn’t. We get eight banjo rags here, from Cullen & Collins’s dim, echoic, and stately 1898 duet on “Eli Green’s Cake-Walk” to the up-to-date 1916 pyrotechnics of Fred Van Eps. Plus four precious jams by banjo king Vess L. “Plunk” Ossman, including the exquisitely funky “St. Louis Tickle,” shot through with intimations of the blues. Ossman, who had the blackest feel of anyone in an age when blacks (even Scott Joplin) were kept away from the recording horn, made this his blackest number.
But we also get, shining through the later stuff—mostly marching bands stomping out straight rags (all parts syncopated)—the first two sides cut by a black band in America, and they’re ferocious. “Too Much Mustard” b/w “Down Home Rag,” re corded by James Reese Europe’s Society Orchestra in December 1913, was worth the wait. Yelping, screaming, manic power-riffing at 244-bpm drum solos—out of control. Suddenly, all imitations seemed tame.
And there were lots of them. Frémeaux, cautious souls, have included only one blackface number here, by the Victor Minstrels. It’s ugly. It totally rocks. I don’t know how to reconcile those two statements. Neither did Elvis, or Mick Jagger. And neither does Slim Shady; the heart of rock and roll is still beating.
If you get beyond the technology, there’s something about this stuff that makes it somehow sound more con temporary than the anarchic, improvised jazz that followed it. It’s worth pondering that the first ragtime revival came in 1950, and the second when the ’60s had burned themselves out. I hope this one catches on—I nurse a secret fantasy that kids will start sequencing cakewalks like “Whistling Rufus” and “At a Georgia Camp Meeting”; that 20th-century pop will end like it began. With, of course, the addition of a massive-attack slab of bass.