September 14

Does Ragtime Cause Insanity?



In the first of RIPM’s Curios, News, and Chronicles, we are highlighting articles from Musical America presenting conflicting views of the value and dangers of ragtime. As this new genre’s popularity increased in the early 1900s, it became a hotbed of controversy. Was ragtime “the limit of musical idiocy and degeneracy” or does it “put a pleasing effect upon the listener”? Please scroll down to the bottom of the page for the full story. 



The debate began in October of 1911 when  Dr. Ludwig Brunner, professor at the Imperial Academy of Medical Research in Berlin, proclaimed that ragtime could ruin both health and sanity.

BerlinDoctor                RagtimeDanceJoplinCover[Musical America, XIV, no. 23 (October 14, 1911): 127]

Within a week, on October 21, 1911, Harvard Professor Phillip Clapp apparently taking to heart Dr. Brunner’s disparaging comments, responded with a defense of ragtime.

HarvardProfessor             ragtime_review

[Musical America, XIV no. 24 (October 21, 1911): 6]




The following year, on March 16, 1912, the Finnish composer Oskar Merikanto jumped into the fray, siding caustically with ragtime’s critics.





[Musical America, XV no. 19 (March 16, 1912): 19]

The debate raged on for several years, so much so in fact that this poem published on August 14, 1915 opens with a reference to Dr. Brunner’s 1911 comments.









[Musical America, Vol 22 No. 15 (August 14, 1915): 17.]

Supporters and critics of ragtime continued to argue over its relative merits, eventually leading the public to enter the debate the following month, September 1915.




[Christensen’s Ragtime Review I, no. 9 (September, 1915): 24.]

Here is historic footage of the Cakewalk, one of the first forms of ragtime, performed in 1903 (media adapted from Library of Congress). Both this and the poem above carry with them the racial bias of their time.  A cautionary note: determine your views of ragtime’s dangers before viewing. Our dear Finnish colleagues should particularly take this warning to heart.

The following is an excerpt of “Smoky Mokes” played by famous banjoists Fred Van Eps & Vess L. Ossman (1900).

In closing, here is a video of the ragtime finale of Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha.

RIPM search tip: for the articles cited above and other related articles, search the RIPM e-library for “ragtime” and “insanity” (or “morality”) in Musical America from 1911-1915. The full text of this journal is available from 1898-1922.


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