top of page

The Story Is Told

So This Was Rag-Time Music


The following extracts are from The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson (1912) and in King Of Ragtime - Scott Joplin and his Era by Edward A. Berlin (1994).

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is the fictional account of a young bi-racial man, referred to only as the "Ex-Colored Man", living in the post-Reconstruction era America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He lives through a variety of experiences, including witnessing a lynching that convince him to "pass" as white to secure his safety and advancement, but he feels as if he has given up his dream of "glorifying" the black race by composing ragtime music. James Weldon Johnson originally published the book anonymously in 1912, via a small Boston publisher. "He decided to publish it anonymously because he was uncertain how the potentially controversial book would affect his diplomatic career. He wrote openly about issues of race and discrimination that were not common then in literature. The book's initial public reception was poor. It was republished in 1927, with some minor changes of phraseology, by Alfred A. Knopf, an influential firm that published many Harlem Renaissance writers, and Johnson was credited as the author." (Read more here).

* * * *

We stopped in front of a house with three stories and a basement ... From the outside the house bore a rather gloomy aspect, the windows being absolutely dark, but within, it was a veritable house of mirth ... In the back room there was a piano, and tables were placed round the wall. The floor was bare and the centre was left vacant for singers, dancers, and others who entertained the patrons ...

There was a young fellow singing a song, accompanied on the piano by a short, thickset, dark man. After each verse he did some dance steps, which brought forth great applause and a shower of small coins at his feet. After the singer had responded to a rousing encore, the stout man at the piano began to run his fingers up and down the keyboard. This he did in a manner which indicated that he was a master of a good deal of technique. Then he began to play; and such playing! ... It was music of a kind I had never heard before. It was music that demanded a physical response, patting of the feet, drumming of the fingers, or nodding of the head in time with the beat.

The barbaric harmonies, the audacious resolutions, often consisting of an abrupt jump from one key to another, the intricate rhythms in which the accents fell in the most unexpected places, but in which the beat was never lost, produced a most curious effect ...

This was rag-time music, then a novelty in New York, and just growing to be a rage, which has not yet subsided.


Here is a scene from the 1977 movie Scott Joplin.

bottom of page