Harlem Rag
by Tom Turpin [playing time 3:15]  [Download the MP3]

Tom Turpin (1871 - 1922)

Tom Turpin is one of the important very early figures in classic ragtime. After some early and less than successful dabbling in mining, he spent the remainder of his career in St. Louis, where he operated the Rosebud Cafe, a prominent venue for rag performers. No doubt cutting an imposing figure on the stage (he is variously reputed to have weighed 300-350 pounds), he contributed a small number of original compositions to the repertoire, of which the finest is perhaps his 1903 St. Louis Rag.

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Tom Turpin's delightful Harlem Rag occupies an important place in the rag repertoire as the first published work in the genre by an African American composer (predating the publication of Maple Leaf Rag by two years), and probably the very first rag ever written (it was composed in 1892).

The piece betrays its "nascent ragtime" nature in relative simplicity of form and harmony. Unlike the fully developed ABACD form of Maple Leaf, Harlem moves straight through its four themes (AA-BB-CC-DD-AA), and the A theme has only eight bars rather than sixteen. The harmonies are heavily planted on I and V, with the C major of the A theme giving way to G in the middle three themes.

I have scored this realization for piano, guitars, banjo, low brass, and bass. In the B section, listen for Turpin's theme in the guitars, while the piano plays a countermelody of my devising; the instruments then switch roles for the repeat. I likewise have taken the repeat of the D theme with an improvisatory variation in the piano, while the guitars carry on some conversation around it. The general idea of introducing variations in the repeats of the themes was made explicit by Turpin himself in the score; he wrote out variations in the B, C, and D themes, rather than using repeat signs and leaving the improvisatory job to the performer.


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