The Devil in Blues, Ragtime and Jazz
by Garin G. Webb
The blues, ragtime and jazz were received with popular acclaim in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the following years, the new music would become one of the most distinctive features of American culture, and it would be embraced world-wide.
And yet we ought to remember history: the new music also encountered vocal opposition, precisely because of its origins. The reception of blues, ragtime and jazz mirrors the cultural evolution of America itself in the 20th century. And that evolution is one in which a people gradually began to realize where the “Devil” really is.
Part 1: Introduction
Invocation of the Devil or descriptions of evil character are ubiquitous in newspapers, journals, and other media heralding the imminent destruction of societal mores and of the youth. These epithets are typically fueled by the unknown.
It is quite common for lay people and critics alike to attempt to explain away that which they either do not understand by speculating that the artist must be controlled by the Devil or some other magical outside agency; that the levels of technical achievement of both Paganini and Liszt, for instance, are so fantastic and new that the only explanation is that their achievements must have been inspired by occult or other dark forces.
In blues, ragtime, and jazz, some Americans felt the imperative to invent a narrative that disparaged the growing influence of African-Americans on society, especially in music. And negative views of blacks had been established long before the blues began to be sung.
The view that Africans and African-Americans were of the jungle and therefore savage was a way of explaining the differences between white and black cultures. These beliefs were reinforced by societal rituals that were aimed at maintaing the superiority of whites. As Cheryl Kirk-Duggan states in her book about the evolution of the spiritual, Exorcizing Evil, establishing differences between peoples through rituals is a way of giving society “a sense of honor and purpose and teach all of us to observe differences between groups and to set groups apart.”1
Warnings of the influence of the devil can also be found in trends in music. In popular American music, especially blues, ragtime, and jazz, calls for outright prohibition were common and filled with vitriol. Frequent warnings about the evil influences of these musics and the moral decay they would precipitate emanated from the church, academia, public journals, and newspapers.
Stereotypes and references to the “savage” were ubiquitous during the blues, ragtime, and jazz eras and were even fostered by the musicians themselves. Playbills, sheet music faceplates, and even record covers often depicted blacks in caricature or referred to the popular musical genres in a derogatory fashion.
That which we don’t know or cannot comprehend we make attempts to explain through stories and superstitions. In human societies, those cultures that were deemed as “other” were either avoided, made war against, or oppressed. In America, African-Americans were, as slaves, valued as a commodity, as a thing. After Emancipation, while technically free, they were marginalized, oppressed and kept in the shadows of the dominant white society.
The average white person in America had virtually no knowledge — or interest, for that matter — in black culture of either American or African lineage. Most images of Africans and their American descendants were those of a black savage: unintelligent, prone to fits of orgiastic dancing, violence, and clownish joviality. The harshest critics laced their diatribe with the poisonous labels of evil, degradation and the immoral.
Labeling something as evil invokes not only the Devil but God himself, and those doing the labeling are on the side of God and the righteous. This was a common tactic in early twentieth-century popular music criticism. After a long diatribe against the evils of jazz in her 1921 article in The Ladies’ Home Journal, Anne Shaw Faulkner attempts to rally her troops with the trope “To Make Good Music Popular, and Popular Music Good.”2
Marshaling the troops against music of evil character was not always so blunt. Jazz was often disparaged as simplistic. Ernest Newman, a vociferous jazz critic, was unflagging in his regard for jazz as a “brainless” music: “The day has gone by when musicians can even take a languid interest in the thing [jazz], for musical people it is now the last word in brainlessness and boredom.”3
Composer and violinist Leo Oehmler seeks to warn the public that the music could inflict disease and cause insanity. “The counters of the music stores are loaded with this virulent poison which, in the form of a malarious epidemic, is finding its way into the homes and brains of the youth to such an extent as to arouse one’s suspicions of their sanity.”4
Since “ragtime is syncopation gone mad,” pianist and lecturer Edward Baxter Perry suggests that “its victims, in my opinion, can be treated successfully only like the dog with rabies, with a dose of lead.”5 Thankfully, Mr. Perry’s comments were meant to be biting and not to be taken literally.
Caretakers of American art, music and moral virtues had an uphill battle ahead of them. At the turn of the 20th century, Americans were casting off the 19th-century shackles of both the strict sensibilities of the Victorian era and the Temperance movement. It could be argued that the new generation’s dance and musical preferences were evidence that they had fully cleaved themselves from these manacles by the end of the 1920’s. Therefore, it was incumbent upon the moral standard-bearers to pull out all the stops in their quest to wrest control of popular music back from that of the devil.
Labeling blues, ragtime, and jazz as evil, immoral, and degrading was primarily fueled by racism and musical ignorance. It can be seen in the rhetoric of articles in journals as well as in newspapers, books, press illustrations, record and sheet music covers and faceplates. We shall also see how segments of white society — moralists, critics, the intelligentsia — perceived ragtime and jazz and examine how some blacks perceived evil in the music of the blues.
At the end of the 19th century, America was closing the door on the Victorian era and opening a new one to an emerging counter-culture. A new generation was creating new dances that challenged the moral code of the corset set. These dances included overt rhythms manifested through percussion and dance patterns that had emerged from African-American culture.
Popular music began to experience a shift in icons and influence at the turn of the twentieth century as well. The Stephen Foster tune was on the way out, and Tin Pan Alley was becoming the new vogue. Emerging from the shadows were the genres of blues, ragtime, and jazz.
The 1920’s were a time when popular music began to create its first black superstars: Bessie Smith and W. C. Handy, of blues fame; Scott Joplin, James Scott, and Eubie Blake, noted composers and performers of ragtime; and Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, noted jazz artists. With the exception of Duke Ellington, the purveyors of these new art forms, by and large, were black musicians from the South.
The African culture which these musicians came from was both dismissed and largely forgotten over time and distance. After several generations, both slaves and former slaves had largely no direct contact with Africa. However, remnants of musical memory were still passed down from generation to generation. At the heart of these indirect African influences were the oral tradition and the emphasis of rhythm through dance. These musical traits started to become fused with European-American music tonality and forms largely through the church.
Copyright © 2013 by Garin G. Webb