Ragtime blues, a subset of the blues linked to the Piedmont guitar style, involved adapting the piano techniques of ragtime jazz to its six-string counterpart. Popularized by Scott Joplin, the ragtime piano style features a fast and rhythmically challenging take on balancing melody, harmony, and bass lines all on one instrument. A precursor to jazz, this syncopated sensibility eventually found its way into the hands of Southeastern blues guitarists. Unlike the more country-influenced stylings of delta blues, Piedmont traditionally prized faster tempos and “ragged” rhythms (hence, the “rag” of “ragtime”). It’s a style that challenges the guitar more than it simply speaks through it, a test of a musician’s ability to play in a technically challenging manner while retaining a sense of musicality.
The World Music Network’s Rough Guide series has quietly exposed mainstream listeners to genres and styles of music that would otherwise go undiscovered. At the same time, they peripherally demonstrate how music from contrasting cultures grew out of common themes ranging from joy to sorrow and introspection to exploration. From Portuguese Fado and Arabic Jazz to Celtic folk songs and Psychedelic Bollywood soundtracks, the series highlights notable artists and works that define sounds from around the ever-evolving global village. With the Rough Guide to Ragtime Blues, the focus is on this specific style from the Southeast, one that still influences practitioners today both within and removed from the greater scope of the blues.
There’s an undeniable joy captured in tracks like “Southern Can Is Mine” by Blind Willie McTell and Big Bill Broonzy’s “Guitar Rag”. The rambunctious bounce of Piedmont pushes the guitar and elevates it from a strummed folk instrument to one that can dance like Joplin’s piano. Admittedly, the primitive quality of these historic recordings (most tracks are likely taken from wax cylinders) reduces them into one-dimensional artifacts of Piedmont’s origins. Sadly, by no fault of the performers, this leaves little room for nuance. Regardless, energy is evident on songs like Reverend Gary Davis’ “Have More Faith in Jesus” and Blind Boy Fuller’s “Piccolo Rag”, classic works that epitomize the ragtime blues sound.
The charming quality of this style made it a commercial favorite, popular in dance halls, bars, and bordellos. Satirical, bawdy, and comical songs became popular commodities, evident in tracks like Bo Carter’s “Your Biscuits Are Big Enough For Me” and the Allen Brothers’ “Salty Dog Blues”. Successful as they may have been at the time, it’s difficult to look back on them now and not think that they played a part in delegitimizing the music. In a way, these novelty songs took something based on the honored traditions of the blues and ragtime and made it all feel like kind of a joke. Still, the bouncy and lighthearted nature of ragtime blues shouldn’t detract from its impact. Ragtime blues is technically challenging music, evident even in front-porch pickers like Mississippi John Hurt’s “Got the Blues Can’t Be Satisfied”.
While perhaps it won’t appeal to everyone, the Rough Guide to Ragtime Blues makes a fine addition to the World Music Network’s collection. Listeners looking for an entryway to this early offshoot of the blues, or anyone curious about the roots and influences of Jack White and Pokey LaFarge, would do well with this compilation.