Etymology of “Ragtime”: Role of “Tag, Rag, and “Bobtail” (The Rabble) and the 19th Century “Fancy Rag Balls”
Despite abundant speculation about the etymology of “rag” in “ragtime” since the emergence of ragtime music into popular consciousness in 1896, a convincing solution has remained elusive. As OED3 sums up the situation (rag, n. meaning #5): “Origin uncertain and disputed.”
But at least some new insight may now be possible. The present study is the first to use digitized newspaper archives to track “rag” and “ragtime” from their sources to full maturity, and the following picture emerges:
- The starting point is tag, rag, and bobtail “the common herd, the rabble”; the word appears in OED3 under bob-tail.
- Rag as a social underclass was excerpted from tag, rag, and bobtail and first invoked in 1829 Baltimore by The Managers (as they called themselves) of the “fancy rag ball.” The “fancy rag ball”, with its implied reference to literal rags, was intended to satirize the social elite’s “fancy balls,” which allegedly had not lived up to their charitable pretensions. The fashion for these events, also dubbed “rag parties,” “rag festivals,” “rag dances,” and simply “rags,” and involving costumery and shabby clothing, personations, music, and dancing, continued into the twentieth century.
- By 1887 “rag” had migrated to a dance routine that previously had been labeled “jig,” and about 1890 to a style of syncopated music supplanting previous labels that also had commonly been “jig.”
- Then in 1896, vaudevillian Ben Harney associated “rag” and “time,” probably by analogy with “march time,” and, as is well known, the press widely disseminated the pair. They soon coalesced to become “ragtime.” The boundaries of “ragtime” quickly expanded to include almost any rhythmic, popular music. The word “classic” was attached to differentiate composed instrumental ragtime.
- By the end of the 1930s, “ragtime” had attained status as a musical genre commensurate with “jazz” and “swing.” With the ragtime revival beginning in the 1940s, “ragtime’s” primary scope contracted as “classic ragtime” instrumentals became the genre’s major expression.
Hoeptner, F. (2020). Comments on Etymology, April-May 2020: Etymology of “Ragtime”: Role of “Tag, Rag, and “Bobtail” (The Rabble) and the 19th Century “Fancy Rag Balls”. Comments on Etymology, April-May 2020, 49(7-8) Gerald Leonard Cohen.
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