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Dakota Datebook

Ragtime Music Controversies in North Dakota


If you have ears to hear lively music, you know the almost-magnetic attraction of ragtime.

Ragtime has syncopation. It has energy, it has off-beat notes, and a solid bottom-bass-line. Ragtime is a distinctively-American kind of music, originating in African-American culture.


Ragtime gets its name from being in “ragged time,” with syncopated off-beats, and it was about the most-popular type of music in America by the early 1900s.


Modern-day music aficionados know that Scott Joplin’s ragtime tunes included “Maple Leaf Rag,” (1899) and “The Entertainer” (1902). Joplin had studied classical music and he masterfully mixed elements of classical harmonies with African-American rhythms and melodies.


Ragtime came to N.D. as early as 1900, when a traveling music-company played a repertoire of songs at Dickinson’s Opera House in February. A troupe of Black musicians from Chicago brought ragtime melodies to Williston Opera House in April; and Wahpeton’s opera house hosted a group playing the “hottest rag-time song hits of the day” in October, 1900.


Although ragtime was the extremely-popular fad, not everyone loved it. On this day in 1905, the newspaper in the little town of Hope published a short article questioning ragtime’s worthiness in comparison with classical music. If classical music served as a tonic to soothe the soul, would off-beat ragtime tunes bring too much excitement?


Yet, if music was a medicine, ragtime might bring downcast souls out from melancholy moods.


Still, critics said ragtime put the “sin” in “syncopation.”


Despite qualms, ragtime gained traction in N.D.---more people bought pianos and Victor talking-machine record-players, and ragtime sheet-music. A 1906 record-player advertisement admitted that “musical tastes differ, but . . . you may choose Ragtime; something classical,” or another “selection,”yet the Victor machine could play them all.

In 1911, composer Irving Berlin wrote one of America’s greatest popular songs, entitling it “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”


If you have heard the words: C’mon and hear; C’mon and hear, Alexander’s Ragtime band,” you find it unforgettable. It may have been the “theme song of a generation,” reviving the “ragtime craze” of a decade earlier. Songsters sang it everywhere, piano-players plunked it out all over.


And music-lovers loved it when a small town in McKenzie County, just west of Watford City — the village of Alexander — formed a “new musical organization.” Local musicians bought new instruments and were “practicing twice each week.” 


What did they call their music-group? “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” What else would they choose?


Dakota Datebook written by Professor Steve Hoffbeck, MSUM History Department.



“If Music As a Curative Agent,” Hope Pioneer, February 23, 1905, p. 2.

“History of Ragtime,” Library of Congress, loc.gov, accessed January 18, 2021.

“Biographies: Scott Joplin, 1868-1917,” Library of Congress, loc.gov, accessed January 18, 2021.

“A Rag Time Feast,” Dickinson Press, February 17, 1900, p. 2.

“The Celebrated,” Williston Graphic, April 19, 1900, p. 1.

“The Greatest .  . Organization,” Wahpeton Times, September 27, 1900, p. 1.

Advertisement, “Musical Tastes Differ,” Bismarck Tribune, September 6, 1906, p. 2.

“Ragtime . . . Put the Sin in Syncopation,” Grand Forks Herald, July 24, 1913, p. 3.

Susan Stamberg, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band: NPR 100,” National Public Radio, npr.com, accessed on October 30, 2020.


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