by C T Knapp

Music Month 2021: The Riches of Rags

Many of today's musical genres have ragtime DNA. Cherry and Jerry go back to the source.
[editor's note: we are taking the opportunity to republish this article from our March issue, as there are two talks in May on this subject presented by Cherry and Jerry]

An American duo will open and close NZ Music Month at Dunedin Public Libraries with a couple of ragtime history shows. 

Studying ragtime can be a bit of a shock – the stories behind this unique music are often unsettling. Why did black composers play into the racism of the era? Why did most women write just a couple of pieces before they faded into oblivion? Yet their creativity would bust through society’s prejudices and restrictions … this was the era that set American pop music on its course.

Scott Joplin — Image by: public domain

Coming directly from St. Louis, at one time considered America’s Ragtime capital, the duo Cherry & Jerry – percussionist Isaac Cherry and pianist Jerry Rabushka – will explore some of the influences and personalities that brought this music to life. Along with their six-piece group The Ragged Blade Band, they have been exploring this style of music for about a decade, and performances range from familiar songs that have endured over 100 years to revivals of some rarely-if-ever heard tunes that deserve a good dusting off and polishing up.

Their first show, “St. Louis: Ragtime Capital,” will broadcast live in the Dunningham Suite at Dunedin City Library on May 1 at 12:30 p.m. St. Louis was home to the famous composer Scott Joplin and was where he wrote “The Entertainer,” but the whole city was jumping with syncopation. You’ll hear about Irene Giblin, who demonstrated piano music in a downtown department store and at age 16 wrote a rag that became a national hit. You’ll also meet Tom Turpin, who opened the Rosebud, the bar that brought the greatest players and composers to the city to seek their fortunes.

Irene Giblin's Ketchup Rag — Image by: public domain

A random download

“I got into ragtime by chance,” says Rabushka. “I was looking for something new to play and came across a free download of Turpin’s ‘Saint Louis Rag.’ I’d never played ragtime before, so I thought I’d give it a try. It was slow going at first – ragtime isn’t easy. That so much of it was published for popular consumption speaks well of the average person’s piano skills at the time. Also, it’s fun to learn about composers and performers that lived very near where we do now. We had a chance once to play ‘Saint Louis Rag’ on the grounds of the 1904 Saint Louis World’s Fair, the event for which that piece was written – and not far from home.”
Tom Turpin's St Louis Rag — Image by: public domain

On May 29, again at 12:30pm, Cherry & Jerry will present “Early African-American Composers,” beginning with James Bland, the minstrel song composer of the 1880s, then moving to ragtime and jazz, and ending with blues from the 1910s and 1920s. Much of this music came from the first generation of Black Americans who were born in freedom.

“A lot of Black composers, in order to make it in show business, had to continue the tradition of racist and stereotyped songwriting. Many of them, while they were popular in their day, have been forgotten, ignored, or are still steeped in controversy,” says Rabushka. “I don’t think they should be shelved, since they were forced to provide this type of entertainment to be able to get on stage at all.” 

We’ll take a look at Ernest Hogan, born three weeks before the end of the American Civil War and who made his way to be the first African-American to both produce and star in a Broadway show; we’ll also feature blues by W.C. Handy (known as the father of the blues), and his contemporaries, which laid the foundation for the blues we know today.

Cherry and Jerry perform in Hannibal, Missouri at the Big River Steampunk Festival as part of the Ragged Blade Band. — Image by: Brandy Jaquet Photography

Unique performance style

While Rabushka plays mainly the music that’s on the page, yet with a very personal interpretation, Cherry has an unusual setup of a cajon (a box with strings inside), a small cymbal, and a bell tree. He uses a wide variety of sticks, and sometimes even his thumbnail, for that one cymbal. He composes the parts himself, drawing on what the music tells him and incorporating performance styles from the USA and the world over.

When the Ragged Blade Band performs, the different backgrounds of the musicians – concert band, choral singing, classical and opera, musical theater, funk, hard rock and even punk – all merge to give this music a modern yet traditional sound at the same time. As a duo or with the band, Cherry & Jerry have toured regionally, playing in venues from smaller bars and restaurants up to headlining statewide events and opening games for a major league baseball team.

The pandemic has encouraged them to reach over the oceans, and they’re excited to perform for an audience in Dunedin. “We’re very grateful for the opportunity, and we thank the Library for having us on board. We look forward to sharing our music with you,” says Cherry.

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  • St Louis, Ragtime Capital : Saturday 1st May, 12.30pm, Dunningham Suite City Library
  • Early African American Composers: Saturday 29th May, 12.30pm, Dunningham Suite

Jerry looks over some sheet music — Image by: Andre Bonnet