Lori Brooks

Lori L. Brooks is assistant professor in the Program in American Culture and the Department of African American Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She has recently completed a book-length manuscript on African American men who wrote ragtime songs for Tin Pan Alley and performed in vaudeville in New York City. She is currently pursuing two projects—a history of black female comediennes during the first half of the 20th century and a study of turn-of-the-century white female “coon-shouters.”



"The Urban Poetics of Ragtime"

This paper theorizes what I refer to as “the poetics of ragtime,” an attempt to grasp the first indigenous genre of American music to be simultaneously “urban,” “industrial,” “commercial,” and “Black.” Between 1896 and 1919, ragtime radically transformed the soundscape of the U.S. Not only as the commercial foundation of Tin Pan Alley’s multi-layered and bureaucratic (i.e., industrial) structure, ragtime was also as a medium through which a contentious discourse about the nature of urban modernity materialized, a way of sonically apprehending and mapping the city and its impact upon the body.

Drawing upon Michel de Certeau’s theorizations of “space” and “walking” as a form of writing the city, I seek to explore the poetics of ragtime as an “urban text,” as a sonic engagement with urban space, and as an aesthetic “ideologization” of cityspace that comprehends sound and hearing through the transformation of the body in space, and vice versa. In doing so, I use turn-of-the-century music criticism as my archive. Ragtime’s adherents credited the genre with capturing the “modern” spirit of change, optimism, and empowered self-making at the turn of the century. For them, the music was emblematic of the progressive ethos of the ‘Gilded Age’-- an empowered urban industrial working class, an urban freedom sought by modern women and black southern migrants, and an ascendant industrial capitalism. Among its detractors, however, ragtime reflected the neurasthenic damage that modern life could do to the body— the unhealthy effects of the tenement and the factory; the frenetic pace, nerve-wracking “noise,” and moral dissipation of city life (racially coded as “black”); and the loss of control over the body and bodily responses to external stimuli (like syncopated rhythms).

Diseased or liberated, stimulated or irritated, ragtime wrote “a manifold story… shaped out of fragments of trajectories and alterations of spaces.” (de Certeau) I am interested in telling this story.

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