A New Theory on the Etymology of “Ragtime”

By John Tennison, MD         Copyright June 27, 2014

    There have been numerous inconclusive efforts to determine the origin of the musical term, “Ragtime.”  Several theories on the origin of the term “Ragtime” seem plausible, but still, there is no convincing evidence that any particular theory represents the true etymology.

    As a result of my own research into the history of the music genre known as “Boogie Woogie,” I have reviewed hundreds, if not thousands of references. While researching the etymology of “Boogie Woogie,” I came across the writings of Laura Elizabeth Howe Richards, who used the term “Buggara Wuggara” as part of a witch’s incantation in her children’s story, "Five Mice in a Mouse-trap by the Man in the Moon," published in 1880. Like the writings of her mother (see below), Laura Elizabeth Howe Richards’ usage of “Buggara Wuggara” could have conceivably been presented to African American audiences, and thus, could have had an influence on the lexicon of African Americans. However, the influence could have happened in the other direction, namely “Buggara Wuggara” could very well have been phonetically similar to a word or phrase that Laura Elizabeth Howe Richards first heard in usage by African Americans. Regardless, I liked the phrase “Buggara Wuggara” so much that I decided to use it as the title of my next musical album.

    Laura Elizabeth Howe Richards was the daughter of Julia Ward Howe, who was one of the most influential women and one of the most important slavery abolitionists in American history. Julia Ward Howe wrote the words to the famous abolitionist song, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which remains one of the most popular songs in American history.

    In further exploring the writings of Laura Elizabeth Howe Richards to see if her usage of “Buggara Wuggara” might have been related to the etymology of “Boogie Woogie,” I came across a transcription of an August 4, 1846 letter by Julia Ward Howe. The transcription appears in the book:

    “Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910, Volume 1,” by Laura Elizabeth Howe Richards, Maud Howe Elliott, and Florence Howe Hall.

    The August 4, 1846 letter had been written to Julia Ward Howe’s sister, called “Wevie” in the opening of the letter.

    As far as I know, this 1846 letter by Julia Ward Howe contains the earliest known instance in which the word “rags” is used to refer to pieces of piano music.

    Specifically, Julie Ward Howe wrote:

    “Yesterday was made famous by the purchase of a very beautiful piano of Chickering’s manufacture. The value of it was $450, but the kind Chick sold it to us at wholesale price. It arrived at Green Peace to-day, and has already gladdened the children’s hearts by some gay tunes, the rags of my antiquated musical repertory.”

    In another section of that same 1846 letter, Julia Ward Howe wrote:

    “At Athol, I found a piano, and sat down to sing negro songs for the children. A charming audience, comprising cook, ostler, and waiter, collected around the parlour door, and encouraged me with a broom and a pitchfork. Well, it was pleasant to arrive at our dear Green Peace, and Villa Julia, as they call it.”

    Although Julia Ward Howe does not make it clear as to specifically what pieces she is referring to in 1846, her description of them as “gay tunes” suggests that the pieces were happy and upbeat in feel. Moreover, the fact that she refers to them as being part of her “antiquated musical repertory” suggests that the pieces had been around for a long time prior to 1846. How long is not clear. Moreover, the fact that Julia Ward Howe speaks of singing “negro songs” while playing the piano for children in the same letter suggests that these “negro songs” might have been part of the overall body of “repertory” that Julia Ward Howe considered both “gay” and “antiquated.”

    The fact that a white woman born and raised in New York City was familiar with “negro songs” and would specifically choose these melodies to entertain children that she presumably did not know in Athol, Massachusetts, suggests that Julia Ward Howe had a familiarity, affinity and appreciation for these particular melodies, as clearly, a white woman from upper-class New York society could have easily chosen alternate repertory to entertain anonymous children in Massachusetts in 1846.

    It is plausible that Julia Ward Howe intended the word “rags” only to refer to a clichéd, trite, dated, worn-out, old musical repertory in a way that was not etymologically influential. However, given the plausibility of Julia Ward Howe continuing to refer to her music repertory as “rags” in other contexts; and given her immersion in African American Culture in the Americas (not only in the U.S, but also in Cuba); and given her high-profile efforts towards the abolition of slavery, and given her frequent audience – enslaved African Americans longing to be free; and given her high-profile position of influence more generally, Julia Ward Howe’s usage of “rags” very well could have been etymologically influential.

    It is not difficult to imagine that someone could have heard Julia Ward Howe refer to her piano repertory containing “negro songs” as “rags.” After hearing such a usage, a listener in Julia Ward Howe’s audience might have gone on to call similar pieces “rags,” or even request that Julia Ward Howe play more “rags.”

    It is plausible that less-educated people in Julia Ward Howe’s audience could have come to consider what she played as “rags,” without necessarily having considered that Howe’s originally-intended meaning of “rag” could have been nothing more than to refer to something old, dated, or worn out. If so, such a child-like and innocent usage of “rag” could have been endearing to Julia Ward Howe, and such a request by someone for Julia Ward Howe to play “rags” could have motivated her to continue calling the pieces “rags” out of deference to her audience.

    If Julia Ward Howe had been in the habit of periodically making time to entertain audiences with her piano repertory, it’s not difficult to imagine Julia Ward Howe saying something like, “Guess what time it is? It’s ‘Rag’ time!” (i.e. time to play some “rags” from her “antiquated musical repertory” ).

    What Julia Ward Howe refers to as “negro songs” could have had characteristics of so-called plantation melodies, which are known to use syncopated rhythms. Moreover, syncopated rhythms are prominent in the melodies of what came to be known as “Ragtime.”

    Given the unresolved question of the etymology of “Ragtime,” I am of the strong opinion that Julia Ward Howe’s use of “rags” to refer to pieces of piano music in 1846 should be given as least as much theoretical weight as any other theory on the etymology of “Ragtime.”

    Interestingly, Julia Ward Howe was also present and gave a speech titled, "What Is Religion?" in 1893 at the Columbian Exposition at the Chicago World's Fair. Consequently, it is entirely possible that her usage of “rags” to refer to piano music could have etymologically synergized in time and space with the likely Arabic usage of “raqs” (to refer to Arabic dance music) at the Chicago World’s fair, as previously theorized by Karl Gert Zur Heide as being a possible etymology of “Ragtime.”

    Regardless of whether or not Julia Ward Howe’s usage of “rags” was etymologically influential in the development of the term “Ragtime,” it appears that Julia Ward Howe’s 1846 usage of “rags” is the earliest known instance in which pieces of piano music were referred to as “rags.”

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