The stories behind
the stories behind /4

Four-part series concludes with the rise of Ragtime and the arrival of Blues

By Byron Toben

March 1, 2022

Song historian and singer Rob Lutes closed out his four-part winter series on the stories behind the songs on February 23 with the most popular song ever, Happy Birthday. That song actually began its life with a composition by sisters Patty and Mildred Hill in 1893, as a children’s song, Good Morning, Dear Children, Good Morning to You. They failed to copyright it and ownership was eventually claimed by a Warner Brothers affiliate in 1988. After protracted lawsuits, it is has been in the public domain since 2017.

Scott Joplin postage stamp

Scott Joplin postage stamp – Image: courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution

After a nod to the influences of marches popularized by Portuguese immigrant John Phillip Sousa, Lutes then delved into the rise of Ragtime music, which term was a contraction of “ragged” time which used four beats. An example was the “cakewalk” tunes developed by black former slaves as a mockery of the pretentious white owners and sort of a comeback against the white-developed minstrel shows highlighted earlier.

Ragtime was best exemplified by Scott Joplin who as a young boy in Arkansas encountered a German-Jewish music teacher who exposed him to classical music. Besides being a composer of many songs, Joplin wrote two operas and was a social activist. Most famous was the Maple Leaf Rag, which led to that and other rags he composed being his deemed the “King of Ragtime” – tough going against the evangelical preachers of the day who condemned Ragtime as the work of the devil.

Joplin died in 1917 but his contribution was acknowledged in 1974 with an Oscar for a film, The Sting, which used his music, as further scored by Marvin Hamlisch; a posthumous Pulitzer in 1976; and a U.S. postage stamp in 1982.

Cover for Hello Ma Baby sheet music

Cover for Hello Ma Baby sheet music – Image: art by William Starmer and Fredrick Starmer – Joseph E. Howard, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As the telephone came into use, there were candidates for the greeting upon answering the call. Alexander Graham Bell, the phone’s inventor, favoured “Ahoy!” based on shipboard greetings until “Hello” won out and, inevitably, there was a ragtime song for that, Hello Ma Baby, Hello Ma Honey, Hello Ma Ragtime Gal, written by Tin Pan Alley couple Joseph E. Howard and Ida Emerson. See my own Ragtime Trivia contest at the end of this article.

Ragtime slowly edged into Blues. A prime composer was W.C. Handy, sometimes called “the Father of the Blues.” A prime example was Saint Louis Blues, which became the first song of this genre to be published. It was a standard for singer Bessie Smith. My mind briefly flitted over to recalling the fine one-act play by Edward Albee, The Death of Bessie Smith, who died from an automobile accident as a Southern whites-only nearby hospital refused to accept her.

From the 1920s to the 40s, Blues songs were relegated to the “race records” divisions of major producers. These were largely eight-bar compositions, although some, like the Delta Blues, were twelve-bar.

Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson (1936) – Image: Hooks Brothers Photographers studio

Crazy Blues as performed by Mamie Smith gave hints of jazz influences. George Jones was known for Sun, Don’t Shine On My Back Door.

Blind Lemon Jefferson wailed such songs as See That My Grave Is Kept Clean, while Isham Jones’s Orchestra made the Wabash Blues one of the most popular blues records ever.

Perhaps the most influential of these Blues composers was Robert Johnson who emerged from a Mississippi plantation to record 29 songs. A myth grew around him that he met the Devil at a crossroads and sold his soul for his talent and fame. In later years, The Rolling Stones claimed him as a key influence.

For the growing number of Rod Lutes fans who have enjoyed this four-part winter series, be aware that the Cummings Centre has arranged a spring six-part weekly series to begin on May 11.

Oh yeah, as aforementioned, my own little Ragtime trivia contest.

WC Handy postage stamp

WC Handy postage stamp US postage stamp issued May 17, 1969 – Image: United States Postal Service

Although Rob Lutes did not mention him, Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band was the song that propelled him into the big time. Question: What play by which famous playwright incorporated that song as a key element into the script?

The winner(s) will receive fifteen minutes of fame by being named (if they wish) in a future Westmount Mag article.

Feature image: Bessie Smith by Carl Van Vechten, Public domain, via Wikimedia CommonsBouton S'inscrire à l'infolettre –

More articles from Byron Toben

Byron Toben, a past president of The Montreal Press Club, has been’s theatre reviewer since July 2015. Previously, he wrote for since terminated web sites Rover Arts and Charlebois Post, print weekly The Downtowner and print monthly The Senior Times. He also is an expert consultant on U.S. work permits for Canadians.

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