Lower East Side, 1910

"America is falling prey to 'ragtime
music'. Such a national disaster
should definitely be pointed out
and extreme measures taken to
inhibit the influence and avert
the increasing danger if it has
not already gone too far...
Ragtime music is symbolic of
primitive morality and perceptible
moral limitations."
- New York Herald 1913.


SYNCOPATION is itself a musical term relating to emphasis on the off-beat. That is to say, if a bar of music is divided into strong, equal beats, syncopation puts the accent midway between two strong beats. You might have heard jazz musicians count in a band by saying “ah-one, ah-two, ah-one, two, three, four” or “One –and-a - Two and-a…” Syncopation puts the emphasis on the “ah” or the “and-a” which represent the off-beats. The effect of Syncopation is sexy: it makes the jazz “hot” and the blues “cool”.

Little wonder then that Allan Knee’s play is perfectly titled – both for the music it employs – ragtime/early jazz – and for the off-beat character of its central romance. Sex simmers just below the surface of the characters with increasing steam as the play progresses – a cumulative effect of its dramatic and musical syncopation. It is no accident that he ends Act I with a hot and passionate tango – the epitome of syncopation rubbing against the strong deliberate tango beats – as the characters try to contain and at the same time express their sex drives in dance.

At the time the play is set, ragtime jazz was sweeping the Western world the way rock ‘n’ roll did 40 years later – and with the same outrage. It was thought to unharness the “jungle instincts”. It made people dance in crazy, suggestive ways as they accented the off-beats with hips swaying and torsos leaving the rigid upright of proper dancing. At the same time, it was really fun and the foot-tapping effect of the music is as undeniable today as when it was written. From Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band (Berlin’s first mega-hit) to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, the influence of ragtime then, and now, cannot be overestimated.

Ragtime - The Soul of the Negro