The Cakewalk 1897-1915

The Evolution From the Quadrille, March to Ragtime

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The word ‘rag’ is used both as a noun and a verb. It is generic to a large group of musical works that might be identified as a cakewalk, coon song, jubilee, or even a march or two-step, and finally, a rag or anything ‘ragged.’ The term ragtime can be used to describe the peculiar, broken rhythmic feature (o o o ) (a rhythmic pattern called united syncopation), and while the various, once popular songs faded from appeal, the characteristic rhythm continued and is found in songs by other names and descriptions. Two types of syncopation (united and tied) were added to many popular songs. This included marches that were delivered with the performer ‘raggin’ a chorus, which was only a step away from what is now called early jazz. It has been written by early jazz musicians that they called early jazz ‘ragtime’ before adopting the name jazz to describe the newly involving musical style.

The ambiguous nature of popular music in the early 20th century lent itself so naturally to various styles that most songs would be entitled one way and then stated that it could be adapted to many other styles. Even the famous Washington Post March of sousa was first written and thought of as a two-step. One example of this ambiguity can be seen in “A Warm Up In Dixie” described used as a cakewalk, march and/or two-step).

Ragtime, the most popular style of music during the turn of the 20th century was performed by the traditional instrumental ensemble of the day, the brass band, and the theater orchestra. Man original rags were not written as vocal or piano numbers but as instrumental orchestra music (Mississippi Rag – first published as a rag, is notated as “the first ragtime two-step ever written” and first played by Krell’s Orchestra. Arthur Pryor’s “Coon Band Contest” (1899) is identified as a trombone solo.

Instrumental rags and ragtime-styled music (an ancestor and influence of jazz), were important in Jazz’s evolution because they: 1) brought Negro rhythmic music to the usually sophisticated American White society; 2) non-reading bands listened to and imitated the more learned orchestras heard performing ragtime song; 3) the large demand for dance orchestras during an era when dancing was the most popular form of social activity; and 4) they provided the style for the ‘ragging’ of marches by adding syncopation and blue notes by the piano players of the era. When a ragtime piece was played the dancer determined the choice of dance steps, although the music might call it a two-step, one-step, ragtime or a number of other dance style. Ragtime’s ancestry is also in the French Quadrille and the military march. Ragtime used the strict form of the march and two of the characteristics of the quadrille – the adaptation of widely miscellaneous popular folk song material, and a great range of rhythmic and melodic flexibility. Its evolution is similar to the evolution of the classic Ricecar to the fugue.

This program traces the evolution of the rag from its early ancestors to jazz songs. We must remember that there was really no difference between early cakewalks, early rags and the two-step. We also must remember that early ragtime was closely associated with dancing. Early ragtime text was in exceedingly poor taste and decidedly vulgar. It used racial bigotry, using caricatures and stereotypes with brutally coarse language. We also do state that, however vulgar the words, they fit the music like a glove.

The evolution of jazz can be seen through a direct line of influences – from the march, to the cakewalk, to ragtime and finally the 1 & 2 step dance and the fox trot. Early jazz was dance music, and its evolution came through the co-ordination of music and the dance. By listening and examining the popular music as it evolved into jazz we can see this evolution from the early Negro cakewalks, which has a ragtime feeling, into ragtime that evolves into the jazz song and jazz dances.

In 1899 we find that the cakewalk was one of the most popular styles of popular American music. This style became ragtime, beginning around 1899 and gained in popularity by 1902. By 1910 ragtime reached its zenith in popularity. Ragtime music evolved into the popular American ballroom dances. This trend was led by the dance team of Irene and Vernon Castle with the help of J. R. Europe. The jazz dance (especially the fox trot) took over the pop scene and jazz became the popular music of the nation. “Teasin’ The Cat” is considered the last rag that was popular and it is interesting as it is subtitled “a fox trot.” The close relationship between the dance and jazz can be seen as numerous new ‘jazz’ dances (Charleston, Black Bottom, shimmy, etc.) were developed. During the 20’s jazz and the dance formed a bond that was stable until jazz evolved around 1945 (beebop) and became a musician’s music that emphasized individual improvisation and performance and was no longer dance music. Jazz then evolved into strictly listening music.

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play selection  [sc_embed_player fileurl=”″] Cotton Pickers Rag & Cakewalk – 1899 – William J. Braun

This song was one of the most popular cakewalks in New Orleans during its publication. The song is a great example of the cakewalk genre and its evolution to ragtime. The composer, William Braun, was born in New Orleans in 1867. He became a prominent band leader in the city and was most famous for his association with the Rex. Carnival Krewe and the Pan-American Life Insurance company Band. He was associated with a great number of New Orleans jazz musicians, including Nick LaRocca, Emmett Hardy and Eddie Edwards. He died in 1940.

“Cotton Pickers” is a charming cakewalk and is fun to perform. It could be the model for all music that was called a cakewalk. A characteristic of these early cakewalks was the use of the cakewalk rhythm in the 13th measure of the first section. It was published by one of the leading music stores in the New Orleans area, the Grunewald Music Co. of New Orleans.

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play selection  [sc_embed_player fileurl=”″]A Warmin’ Up In Dixie – 1899 – E. T. Paull

E.T. Paull’s publications used a beautiful and artistic cover to help sell the music within. This piece is described as a ‘cakewalk, march and two-step.” Written in 1899, the year that the cakewalk was the most popular, it begins with a fanfare-like introduction and progresses to a charming melody. Its rhythm is exciting and uses the cakewalk rhythm throughout.

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play selection  [sc_embed_player fileurl=”″]Hello My Baby – 1899 – Joe Howard & Emerson

No less than Johannes Brahms was a fan of this song. He heard a lady performer playing the banjo and singing this song in a Paris nightclub. He remarked how he really loved the rhythmic structure. Unfortunately, Brahms died before he was able to use the rhythm in the body of a complete composition. The cakewalk was the first music to use extensive syncopation throughout the complete composition. While most will recognize the melody of the last section, it begins with sections not familiar. It is considered a cakewalk but became a very popular American song and became one of the ‘hits’ during the turn of the 20th century.

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play selection  [sc_embed_player fileurl=”″]Hunky Dory – 1900 – Abe Holzmann

Another popular cakewalk played by the Sousa Band and is marked “a characteristic cakewalk, march and two-step. It was ccmposed by the well-known composer Abe Holzmann. It contains the use of the cakewalk rhythm and the use of syncopation.

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play selection  [sc_embed_player fileurl=”″]Georgia Camp Meeting – 1897 – Kerry Mills

Written as a “two-step, polka or cakewalk” it is in reality a perfect characteristic cakewalk. Kerry Mills, born in Philadelphia in 1869, was perhaps the most popular composer of popular American music in his lifetime, stated: “This march was not intended to be a part of the religious exercise, but when the young folks got together they felt as if they needed some amusement. A cakewalk was suggested and held in a quiet place – hence this music.” Mills’ career reflected the changing trends in American popular music in 1897 to 1915. He was a skillful and prolific composer, capable of writing in any popular idiom. His most lasting composition might be “Red Wing.” Mills compositions were the antecedent of classic ragtime and they indicate a bridge between the old two-step danced to Sousa’s “Washington Post March and Two Step” and the emerging styles of black-derived dance called the cakewalk. In Mills’ music, unlike the grotesque ‘coon’ songs of the era, the Negro is a medicum of dignity and individuality. Mills’ sheet music covers are carefully conceived, executed and designed to emphasize the title without resorting to a complex apparatus of symbolism. “Georgia” in its time was the biggest of hits and is based on the Civil War tune “Our Boys Will Shine Tonight.” In “Georgia” one can see the influence of the cakewalk ancestor – the march, and it is band music, not written for the keyboard idiom.

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play selection  [sc_embed_player fileurl=”″]Coontown Capers – 1897 – Theo. F. Morse

Marked a two step/cakewalk, “Capers” is march-like but with a syncopated introduction. The sheet music cover list 15 different instrumental combinations that could be used. It is one of the earliest cakewalks using united syncopation throughout, with the traditional use of unison and cakewalk rhythms in bar 13. One interesting part is the vocal in section D (the piece is in four sections), with the melody of the vocal repeated instrumentally to the end of the song. The words are given below and are “tame” in comparison with the later ‘coon’ song lyrics.

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play selection  [sc_embed_player fileurl=”″]A Warm Reception – 1899 – B. Anthony

Described as a “characteristic march, two-step and cakewalk” there are descriptions on the cover that we should mention. At the top we find “a prominent number on Sousa’s programs.” There is a paragraph describing the writing of this piece: “The members of the “Lucky Seben Social Club” had made gorgeous preparations for an entertainment to be given in honor of a prominent member (Prof. Adolphus Duskee), just returning from a trip abroad. A bust of music greeted him upon being ushered into the hall, which was profusely decorated with flowers and palms, and ablaze with colored lights. Observing the evident delight with which the members of the Club received him, he remarked: ““ell, this is cert’ny a warm reception”.

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play selection  [sc_embed_player fileurl=”″]A Coon Band Contest – 1899 – Arthur Pryor

Arthur Pryor wrote this piece for band concert performance. The music illustrates

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the link between brass band music and the Negro type music, i.e. the cakewalk. This piece was re-issued in 1918 unaltered except for a new, more fashionable descriptive designation “Jazz Fox Trot.” Published in 1899, it is a good example of the cakewalk genre using the characteristic cakewalk rhythm and syncopation. There is also a very characteristic trombone part using ‘smears’ or ‘glissandos.’

play selection  [sc_embed_player fileurl=”″]Dusky Dudes – 1899 – Jean Schwartz

During the year 1899, cakewalks were one of the most popular styles of American popular music. Within the song there is multiple use of the cakewalk rhythm. Written in a quasi march form, it is an excellent example of a cakewalk at the turn of the 29th century. The cakewalk brought to the foreground of American popular music this style of Negro music and rhythm. The cakewalk is a direct ancestor of the music called ragtime.

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play selection  [sc_embed_player fileurl=”″]Whistling Rufus – 1899 – Kerry Mills

Whistling Rufus is described as a “characteristic march” but they are quick to add: “can be used effectively as a two-step, polka or cakewalk.” This alone tells us that the same song was used for many different types of dance steps. An interesting paragraph is given on the first page of the music that gives us more information about the song: “No cakewalk given in the Black Belt district of Alabama was considered worth while attending unless “Whistling Rufus” was engaged to furnish the music. Unlike other musicians, Rufus always performed alone, playing an accompaniment to his whistling on an old guitar, and it was with great pride that he called himself the “one-man band.” Whistling Rufus shows that the cakewalk was in reality an early ancestor of the classic rag.

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play selection  [sc_embed_player fileurl=”″]Happy Mose – 1899 – Phil Kussel

When publishing cakewalks the cover of the sheet music many times stated that the piece could be used as a cakewalk, polka, two step or march. Many two steps published were actually cakewalks. The music remained the same but the dancers would do the dance of their choice. Happy Mose is marked “cakewalk-two step. Happy Mose is a typical cakewalk with the traditional cakewalk rhythm presented in the 13th and 14th measures of the first section.

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play selection  [sc_embed_player fileurl=”″]Smoky Mokes – 1899 – Abe Holzmann

Described as a cakewalk and two-step we find, in the vocal parts, a text that is in Negro dialect and is an example of the lyrics that soon were to be known as ‘coon’ song lyrics. The cover reminds us that it can be used as a cakewalk or two-step. This cakewalk was often played by Sousa’s band.

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play selection  [sc_embed_player fileurl=”″]Koonville Koonlets – 1899 – A. J. Weidt

As in many compositions of the era this piece is listed as “a characteristic cakewalk and two-step march.” The quote points out that the popular music of the era could be used in various styles and the dancers would do the dance step that suited them. The piece uses the cakewalk rhythm and is written in the musical form of a marc, the form that was used in early ragtime. The melody is simple and like most cakewalks it is charming and easily remembered.

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play selection  [sc_embed_player fileurl=”″]Shuffling Jasper – 1899 – W. H. Scouton

One of the earliest cakewalk pieces that were sub-titled “ragtime,” “Jasper” is also noted as a two-step. This cakewalk contains all the characteristics of early cakewalks and its inclusion is due, not only to its excellent cakewalk music, but to its statement in the sub-title describing it as ragtime. Coming out in print the same year as the Mississippi Rag, it is usually thought of as one of the first rags published.

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play selection  [sc_embed_player fileurl=”″]Uncle Jasper’s Jubilee – 1899 – E. T. Paull

One of the earliest and most colorful and artistic piano sheet music covers is “Uncle Jasper’s Jubilee.” The cover is a caricature and is not realistic nor flattering, but it was what appeared on the sheet music of the late 19th century in America in hopes to excite the curiosity and interest of a potential buyer. “Jasper” is labeled a ‘two-step and cakewalk, dance characterisque.’ This song is notable as it was arranged for band by the great Sousa Band cornetist Herbert L. Clarke. Clarke arranged this song, giving the cakewalk genre a very professional endorsement that helped the general public accept the cakewalk genre as true musical worth and hastened the development of well-educated composers to composer classical cakewalks and rags. The piece is another example of the march-like feeling of the cakewalk.

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play selection  [sc_embed_player fileurl=”″]Southern Hospitality – 1899 – Arthur Pryor

Marked a ragtime/cakewalk, we find the name of “Sousa’s Band” following Pryor’s name on the composer’s credit. The introduction has an interesting use of the cakewalk rhythm in tutti unison. It is marked “Marcia Moderato” again linking cakewalk/ragtime music to the march and the brass band. Using both the cakewalk rhythm and the syncopation of ragtime it is a bridge between the two styles. It is written by the great trombonist of Sousa’s Band, Arthur Pryor.

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play selection  [sc_embed_player fileurl=”″]Creole Belles – 1900 – J. B. Lampe (pseudonym: Ribe Danmark)

This is another cakewalk that was popular with Sousa’s Band and often played. The second section uses counterpoint to good effect. The third section stresses the “Scotch Snap” ( o o ) which often appeared in early plantation music. If one hears only the first section one would say it is definitely a cakewalk, but if hearing the second section one would say it is a march.

play selection  [sc_embed_player fileurl=”″]Colored Aristocracy – 1899 – G. Bernard

This piece is just one of the hundreds of cakewalks published during the last decade of the 19th century and early 20th century. IT contains the cakewalk rhythm throughout and points the way to what we now call “a jazz break.” It presents the cakewalk style with dignity and grace and generates excitement and joy.

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play selection  [sc_embed_player fileurl=”″]The Darkies Drill – 1903 – Agnes Melville

Marked a “two-step and cakewalk” this piece comes as the fad and popularity of the cakewalk was fading. One can tell it is a cakewalk written as the style developed musically into ragtime. It contains more developed harmonies foreign to the home key of C Major (the introduction presents an Ab7 chord). It also contains a more developed form of syncopation, the tied syncopation, typical of later ragtime music. The dynamics, an important part of the “patrol” style is used throughout.

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play selection  [sc_embed_player fileurl=”″]An Ethiopian Mardi Gras – 1899 – M. Levi

Also marked “two-step and cakewalk” it contains 6 sections, with not only a repeat of the musical material of D in section F, but with an added obbligato played by the piccolo. This is a well developed cakewalk which breaks the traditional structural and paves the way for ragtime style.

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play selection  [sc_embed_player fileurl=”″]Coon’s Birthday – 1903 – Paul Linke

Perhaps one of the most developed cakewalks, it begins with the traditional ABA form and then modulates from C Major to F Major in the D section (marked trio) with the melody in the lower part. Section F uses a more harmonic developed idiom, not typical of early cakewalks. This section contains musical play between the high parts and the low parts, with brief modulations from D Minor to F Minor. Counterpoint is explored in the 13th bar of this section and is developed in Section G with the melody being stated in the lower part with an obbligato in the high parts. This cakewalk is more developed harmonically than the cakewalks of the 1899s and shows the cakewalk’s progress into becoming a more pianist style that progresses to classic ragtime. Paul Linke was a European composer and a ragtime pianist who is said to have played in San Francisco. His melodism is typical of European composers attempting to write cakewalks and rags.

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play selection  [sc_embed_player fileurl=”″]Bunch O’ Blackberries – 1900 – Abe Holzmann

Published in 1900 it is marked a cakewalk and two-step, “Bunch” is a traditional cakewalk using the characteristic rhythm of the cakewalk and its traditional appearance in the 13th and 14th measures of the first section. It is written in 5 sections with a transitional; “break” before the last section. This cakewalk was played by the Sousa Band and was introduced in Paris by Sousa. The influence of the Sousa Band overseas cannot be overstated. We only have to point out that Debussy heard the Sousa Band and later composed his famous cakewalk.

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play selection  [sc_embed_player fileurl=”″]Keep Moving – 1915 – William White

There was a small cakewalk revival in 1915 with the publication of a number of cakewalks. The cakewalk had faded in the early years of the 20th century. This cakewalk, while using the cakewalk rhythm, also introduces a dotted rhythmic figure, a characteristic of the maturing ragtime style as well as tied syncopation (also in the ragtime idiom). The tradition of the use of the cakewalk rhythm in the 13th and 14th bars of the first section is adhered to. The cover shows a more realistic view of Negroes doing the cakewalk dance.

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