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“It Was Considered Low Music”: Pianist Eubie Blake on the Birth of Ragtime at the Turn of the Century

by Eubie Blake/Max Morath

Ragtime music, with its syncopated, polyrhythmic style, was born, according to cultural historian Robert Snyder, in the 1890s in the black saloons and brothels of southern and Midwestern cities like Baltimore and St. Louis. By the end of the 19th century ragtime had assumed a place at the center of American popular music and remained there until the 1920s. Ragtime meant a tinkling piano and no one played the ragtime piano any better or longer than Eubie Blake, born in Baltimore in 1887. In this selection from an interview performance conducted in 1970 for public television by musician Max Morath, Blake recalled how he began playing ragtime as a young man at the turn of the century.

Listen to Audio:

Eubie Blake: You wanna hear the first tune I ever played?

Max Morath: I sure do.

Blake: Now this is about, this is about couple of years, or years... Listen, listen what I play. With one finger I could. [Plays]. No, down here.


Blake: That’s the first thing I ever played on the, on the organ.

Morath: You built by ear?

Blake: You know I didn’t know no music!

Morath: Well you didn’t then.

Blake: I had heard this tune all my life and that’s what I played then. So that’s how I started to play. But I always could hear harmony, ever since I can remember. I know it was something else so I put the third there, then I tried something else until I got the whole four chords, see four notes in the chord. And that’s how I started to play piano. Now, there was a woman named Margaret Marshall lived next door.

Morath: This is in Baltimore?

Blake: All this is in Baltimore. And then I went to... She said, “Oh,” said, “I’ll give him music lessons.” And gave me music lessons. I was six years old then and I used to get my music lessons. Let’s just see. [Plays].

Morath: Eubie, it’s wonderful that anybody ever learned to play ragtime and jazz when they were taught those things... [laughs]

Blake: Now wait a minute. I don’t like that thing that way. I don’t like it that way, so I play it like this. [Plays] See I play it this...

Morath: You get your knuckles rapped.

Blake: I play it that way, see. So one day I was playing—my mother’d gone out to work, see—and what she was doing home that time in the morning, I don’t know. She came in, says — and heard me playing: “Take that ragtime out of my house!” That’s the first time I ever heard the word “ragtime.” And she made me; she made me stop.

Morath: She really made you stop.

Blake: Yes, wouldn’t let me play.

Morath: Well, why did she... ? I mean why did she think it was... ?

Blake: Because ragtime was supposed... See it was out of the houses of ill repute, or bordellos, I guess that’s a better word, and it was low, low, low. It was considered low music, see. It wasn’t, it wasn’t art, see.

Morath: You think it was simply because it was played in this sporting district...

Blake: In the sporting district...

Morath: Or because they thought there was something wrong with the music itself?

Blake: No, not the music, because from whence it came. See?

Morath: Were you... when you were a teenager or in your early professional days, were you in that... ah, kind of work. I mean were you close enough to that that you could tell us about it?

Blake: Yeah. Now you see when I first start to play in these houses, see, it must have been around nineteen hundred.

Morath: So you were about fifteen... sixteen.

Blake: Yeah. I used to have to go across to the pool room. A guy named Rab Walker, he ran the pool room. And I got a pair of long pants to put on, you see, because I can’t go in this house with short pants on, see. The pants come way up here, Max, way up here and roll up, and I go and play. The woman paid me three dollars a week. But she never paid me nothing because I made tips. Boy, sometimes I’d make seven and eight, ten dollars, see? I’ve been lucky all my life: I’ve always made good money. So, I’d take the guys to the theater, to the burlesque theater. They’d go up in the gallery, you know. Ten cents. If I’d take fifteen guys I’d spend... I had—Max this is true—I had money all under the carpet.

So the lady next door, Harp’s mother. When they heard that I was playing, then my mother said, this woman... “I heard somebody play just like little Eubie,” see. “Little Eubie.” She says, “Where?”Says “Up in Aggie Shelton’s.” Well, she don’t know who Aggie Shelton is. She says, “What time?” "Oh, it must have been about twelve o’clock." And I’d steal out at night.

Morath: You’d sneak out of the house at night.

Blake: Sneak out of the house and go get my long pants and put’em on, see. Then I’d come back and put’em back, see. Twenty-five cents I had to pay him. And my mother says, “Oh, it couldn’t have been him, that boy went to bed at nine o’clock.” I did go to bed, see, but my mother was at the front and I’d go out the alley. Go right out the alley and go across the street, get my long pants, put’em on, go up to Aggie Shelton’s to work. Well, I worked up there for about three or four months. Then I went down on what they call the line: sporting houses on this side, sporting houses on that side, see. That was Annie Gilly’s and I played down there. That’s where the man come and got me to play for the...

Morath: Medicine Show?

Blake: Medicine Show! See.

Morath: Can you remember when you were playing piano at Aggie Shelton’s, for instance? I mean can you remember the style that you were playing then?

Blake: I played... I have never changed my style of playing in my life, see.

Morath: Oh now, come on, because you’ve studied music ever since 1900.

Blake: All right but, but when I play ragtime I have never changed my style. You know people say, "Today, you

take..." The pianist today... you say, who’s that playing? You can’t tell because they all play alike. Whoever makes a big hit, then the guy follows that guy, see.

Morath: Mmhmm.

Blake: I’ll play like him, see? So they have no style, very few have a style of their own. Now I’ve been playing... look. Look now, the “Charleston Rag,” you take the “Charleston Rag.”


Blake: Ladies and Gentlemen, that’s Ragtime!

Source: Courtesy of Max Morath and the Michigan State University Voice Library.