News Column

Gadgets That Spread the Joy of Ragtime

June 26, 2013


WHAT: "Rags, Those Beautiful Rags": Ragtime Music from the Guinness Collection.

WHEN: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday (until 8 p.m. on Thursday); noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Through Nov. 10.

WHERE: Morris Museum, 6 Normandy Heights Road, Morristown; 973- 971-3700 or

HOW MUCH: $10 museum admission; $7 for children, students and seniors.

Time, in ragtime, is of the essence.

It's the syncopation - the jaunty dotted notes and rowdy accents - that turned ragtime into the national craze now being celebrated in "Rags, Those Beautiful Rags," an exhibit at the Morris Museum in Morristown.

But time is key to ragtime in another sense. It was the music of a specific time - the turn of the 20th century - when a newly robust sheet music industry, and a plethora of new mechanical gadgets like player pianos, band organs and gramophones, helped spread the breezy new music everywhere. It was this perfect storm of social, artistic and mechanical breakthroughs that helped to turn ragtime into America's first genuine pop music sensation.

"This is a workout," says Jeremie Ryder, conservator to the museum's Guinness Collection, pumping at the foot pedals of an Aeolian Duo-Art Player Piano, manufactured in Garwood, circa 1920.

"It's like riding a bicycle," he says, puffing away.

Out of the piano comes music: peppy, lively, light. "The Jersey Rag" is by Montclair composer Joseph Lamb - considered with Scott Joplin and James Scott one of the "big three" triumvirate of classic ragtime composers. But thanks to player pianos like this - also music boxes, cylinder phonographs and other gizmos on display at the Morris Museum exhibit - tunes like "The Jersey Rag" could be heard as far away as Boise, or Bulgaria.

"This is a window into a period of time when piano manufacturers, sheet music publishers, composers, all these different industries, were converging and using each other," Ryder says.

"Rags, Those Beautiful Rags" spins off of the museum's 8-year- old Murtogh D. Guinness Collection, a trove of some 700 delightful mechanical gadgets bequeathed by a wealthy descendant of the famed brewers. Mechanical dolls, self-playing violins, barrel organs and antique music machines of every variety can be seen in the museum's permanent first-floor gallery.

Ragtime artifacts

But next door, a smaller temporary exhibit space has now been set up specifically to display ragtime artifacts. There is an "Encore Automatic Banjo" -- yes, it's self-picking -- manufactured by the "Automatic Banjo Co. of NJ." There is the Regina Hexaphone, an early version of a jukebox (it contains six cylinders), manufactured in Rahway. There are music boxes, automatic harps and mechanical figures that all play the irresistible, syncopated music pioneered by black musicians and derived from African rhythms: the precursor to jazz. The music can be heard at three listening stations; the machines themselves are demonstrated periodically.

Eight automatic instruments -- six of which the museum has never displayed before -- are on view in the "Rags" exhibit; also broadsides, advertisements, sheet music covers.

Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" and "Country Club Rag-Time Two Step" have dignified, sober-looking covers, as befits the great composer who saw his rags as "Afro-American classical music" and eventually wrote an opera, "Treemonisha," incorporating ragtime motifs. Other sheet music attests to the faddish, novelty aspect of much ragtime in the early 1900s: "Mad House Rag," by Edgar Leslie and Freddy Watson; "Ragtime Goblin Man," by Harry Von Tilzer; "Teasing the Cat," by Chas. L. Johnson. Many have grotesque covers - - prancing demons are a favorite motif.

"These are the first decades when composers were actually being paid residuals," Ryder says. "Finally they could write music and get paid a percentage. Pop music really grew out of this period."

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