Everybody’s Doin’ What?

As I prepare to teach various classes about ragtime (and its roots), I’ve returned to Dale Cockrell’s recent book, Everybody’s Doin’ It: Sex, Music, and Dance in New York, 1840-1917 (Norton, 2019). It’s a revelatory peek at the roots of popular music and dance in the public houses, dives, brothels, and concert saloons of New York city — a demimonde that, demi or not, created a whole world of music, one which we still arguably inhabit. A world, it is important to acknowledge, forged on the backs of sex workers, as Cockrell begins with a sober acknowledgement:

Dedicated to the untold thousands of women upon whose anonymous bodies an American music was built. We must never forget.

That discomfiting fact is, of course, key to gaining perspective on the contexts for the kind of music making that would pave the way for the ragtime revolution. But as Cockrell notes, the music itself is frustratingly elusive. It’s a steady, implicit, sometimes even remarkable presence in the historical record, on the one hand, and a murky collection of distortions on the other. As Cockrell notes in the preface, the working-class people whose lives he is working to reconstruct “tended to live below … the horizon of record” —

To many of these people, the spoken word weighed more than the written, for they were an oral lot. Narratives were vaporous, and of the moment. Then, too, it is in the very nature of documents and artifacts that they tend to be preserved in a ratio commensurate with the social standing of the subject; archives are seldom maintained for those of a low social class. In order to reconstruct the lives of the working-class actors in this book, I have often had to rely on the words of literate middle-class witnesses who, as a group, condescended to those beneath their place. It is likely that their biases are embedded in their accounts. Given that, one should be suspicious, as I have tried to be, of many of my sources’ historical accuracy. As a rule of thumb, disparaging views written by urban middle-class reporters about the urban hoi polloi should probably be dialed back a notch or two, sometimes even more. Still–and importantly–enough common ranting across a body of narratives likely indicates some underlying truth. (xii-xiii)

Cockrell is thus faced with the challenging task of recovering a musical history that was obscured from the start. He attends, then, to “the contexts in which the music flourished and what they might suggest implicitly about the nature of music-making” (4). This interpretive act demands a certain degree of inference —

If, for instance, the blood of dancers was said to be “on fire” and images from the time showed “high-kicking” female dancers and leering male dancers, and it was in the best interest of the musicians’ livelihood to keep the dancing at a high pitch, then the music was likely to be hot, energetic, tremendous fun, made-up, and open-ended enough in form to keep the dancers dancing. (4)

For people “impoverished in material resources but rich in music,” Cockrell argues,

The music provided them the freedom to imagine and express made-up ideas not bound by economic circumstance. From that came an improvised music that emphasized the offbeat accents between regimenting downbeats and prompted provocative dance moves that those who considered themselves respectable considered rude and wildly inappropriate. (ibid.)

This is, of course, a story about class and race as much as sex. Cockrell suggests ways to re-imagine the broad outlines, and some specific stylistic details, of the music that drove all this dance and social life at a crucial time for the making of American popular music. In the spirit of continuing to imagine and recover what that soundtrack was, allow me to catalog other musical flashes and fragments that surface in Cockrell’s book.


Estimating that by the 1860s the dance halls on Water Street would have provided “regular employment … for several hundred musicians,” Cockrell reconstructs the instrumentation of such “orchestras,” which included anywhere from 3-6 players:

Fiddles, often described as “wheezy,” were the melodic instruments of choice in practically all. Nearly as common and more important for establishing and maintaining dance rhythms were tambourines. … A surprisingly large number of reports also placed a string bass in the dance band. The musicians were all practiced and skilled in setting the pace for the evening’s fun, with energetic rhythms feeding the joys of the dance, which was most commonly a Virginia reel…” (50)

Again, according to middle- and upper-class observers–

…the sounds made in these places [i.e., concert saloons] were manifestly not transcendently beautiful; they were rather–in some of their own words–out of tune, wheezing, hideous, wild, cracked, thumping, execrable, wailing, wiry, low, squalling, jangling, murdering, savage, and lunatic. (62)

Between 1879-82, agents of the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents listed a total of 86 song titles, “thus providing a useful cross section of the music heard in that day’s concert saloons and variety theaters”–

They ranged from old ballads (“Sally in Our Alley”) and eighteenth-century patriotic songs (“Yankee Doodle,” “Hail Columbia”) to Scottish and Irish songs (“Scotch Lassie Jean,” “The Irish Fair”) and older popular songs (“Old Folks at Home,” “What Are the Wild Waves Saying”). But by far the majority of songs noted were the day’s most popular, with titles such as “Cradle’s Empty, Baby’s Gone” (1880), “De Golden Wedding” (1880), “Little Log Cabin in the Lane” (1871), “The Mulligan Guard Picnic” (1878), “Silver Threads Among the Gold” (1873), “A Violet from Mother’s Grave” (1881), and “When the Robins Next Again” (1883).

Many popular songs heard in concert saloons were undoubtedly performed as published… But published songs could also be reshaped to fit the situation. Concert saloons had pianos, but musicians also played violins, cornets, French horns, banjos, tambourines, bones, guitars, and more. With such rich musical resources available, songs must often have been “arranged” or, perhaps more accurately, improvised–made up on the spot and never written down. In fact, the urge toward ad-hoc music-making is a long-standing and salient characteristic of American popular music performance. (79-80)

Notably, Cockrell documents the rise of ragtime and one key context for its emergence (and denunciation among middle-class moralists): gay dive bars, known as “slides,” that catered to gay men and women. Testifying to a committee investigating police links to brothels and saloons, one witness drew a clear connection between ragtime music and dance and “gay New York,” reporting that:

They danced the rag time there. By the rag time I mean a decidedly immoral dance. That is one of the evils of this thing. You will find the word “rag time” used in high social circles. The people do not know what it means. They do not know where it emanated from. If they did they would blush for shame. (123)

This opposition to ragtime and insistence on its original contexts helps us to remember that

Although ragtime has come to be thought of as a piano-based concert music, at the start people expected to dance to its intoxicating rhythms–called “negro dance time” by one reviewer. Ragtime dancing quickly supplanted the cancan as the most sensuous and lascivious dance in New York. As a black American dance form much loved and practiced by gay New Yorkers–not white, European, and straight, like the cancan–it was a target for the authorities on both counts. Indeed, the president of New York’s Police Board (Theodore Roosevelt’s old position) was unequivocal–“‘rag-time’ dancing in public halls is to be stopped.”

That did not happen. Instead, ragtime dancing grew into such a phenomenon that it became not a single dance, but descriptive of a whole style of dancing. Virtually any moves to syncopated dance music qualified as ragtime dancing, a dance fashion that would last for two decades. The phrase itself, though, had a short life and was soon supplanted by “tough dancing,” which better described the wide variety of new moves and steps. (125)

Cockrell describes the shift in attitudes heralded by ragtime as such an “acute” articulation that “New Yorkers would inevitably perceive their lives, music, dances, and bodies in new, fundamentally different ways”–

In dance, before the 1890s most legitimate styles had prescribed steps, moves, and ways of holding partners; afterward, there would be a wide variety of imaginative tough dances, with moves borrowed from the waltz, the polka, the cancan, clogging, jigging, the cakewalk, and others, and put to vastly different effect. And in American popular music, while syncopation had been a feature for decades, highly exaggerated, ragged rhythms now made for a new music that was vibrant, palpably alive, deeply exciting, and soon to be ubiquitous. The Age of Ragtime had begun. (127)

To place this in greater historical perspective, Cockrell notes that

Few, if any, decades in the history of American dance featured a wider array of wildly provocative dances than the 1910s. … Most all of the dances featured bodies jammed up close to each other–“hollow to hollow,” as Stockdale liked to report. … What the investigators witnessed were moments in an especially dynamic time when young people from a wide range of ethnicities were hearing flashy, invigorating, and heavily syncopated ragtime rhythms and moving their bodies to the music in fresh, sexy, uninhibited ways. (166-7)

Because the committee reports of such investigators “are rich in particulars on dancing, but … no better than earlier [reports] at providing useful details on music making,” Cockrell contends that we might indulge a little synaesthesia and try to hear the music as we read about the dance:

To a dancer, the music is interpreted in the dance; bodily movements are performances of the aural experiences of the the music. In an important way, dance is music made manifest. To a musician, the way the dancers move prompts the way the music is made; playing is in some part an expression of seeing. So, concomitantly, music is dance made manifest. Reading about dancing in the reports and visualizing what it was like is a form of synesthetically hearing the music-making over in the dark corner. If the agents thought the dancing “vulgar,” “indecent,” “suggestive,” “disgraceful,” or “utterly and superlatively rotten,” they probably also thought the music “wild,” “alleged,” and “discordant”–and often called it just that. (168)

At the same time, because they could see the instruments, agents’ reports offer more particulars on that count:

They chronicled pianos, violins and fiddles, guitars, banjos, harmonicas, a zither … , accordions, harps, drums … An “orchestra” might minimally consist of a piano and a violin/fiddle or, less frequently, a piano and a percussion instrument–drums of various sorts, bones, clappers, a trap set, “anything to make a big noise,” in Stockdale’s phrasing. Other frequently mentioned ensemble combinations were piano and guitar, piano and banjo, guitar and banjo, and piano and harp. Four-piece orchestras typically consisted of piano, drums, and two violins/fiddles. Just about whoever was around with whatever instrument was handy seems to be at the heart of the story here. (168)

Ultimately, Cockrell sets the stage for understanding social, cultural, and economic shifts signaled by the Jazz Age, as well as the links between jazz and the musical styles that preceded it in New York city–

The explosive arrival of jazz in New York has generally been ascribed to developments in the recording industry and to the arrival in the city of “Great Migration” black musicians. A more immediate explanation would take note of the legions of black and white musicians long in New York. Already practiced in an energetic, syncopated dance music–ragtime–they had lost easy access to a secure, demimonde musical economy and so necessarily moved into a new and insecure public economy. There they naturally played for dancing, music-loving patrons the noisy music they had long known how to make, but now inflected by a closely related, jazzy new idiom. (197)

I’ll finish with Cockrell’s summary of the shape of jazz to come, following the shuttering of the tenderloin districts that, in 1910, were estimated to employ as many as “one in three professional, full-time male musicians” (202). By 1920,

Musicians who managed to retool and rise to the challenges of a new world shaped by new social expectations did so in a vastly different musical environment than ten years before. A typical tenderloin dance band in 1910 was two to four musicians, suitable for the smaller concert saloons, dance halls, and dives, many unlicensed, that hoped to avoid wide public scrutiny while maintaining their patronage, which was often multiracial. By the 1930s, combos would feature five to seven musicians and big bands were even larger, better numbers for the grand restaurants, theaters, and nightclubs that sought wide public attention, places like the Apollo Theater and the Cotton Club, where the performers were black and the audiences white. Music as an intimate, backroom, black-and-tan experience was in rapid decline; music as a public, big-space, segregated experience was in high ascendence. This was a track that would have broad ramifications for subsequent developments in American popular music and its consumption. (202)

I find all of this perspective deeply useful as I try to re-imagine the trajectory of American popular music every semester, working always to better flesh out the picture for students and for myself. I’m deeply appreciative of the careful, archival work Cockrell is doing here, and I couldn’t recommend this fascinating book more highly.

Elusive as the music remains in the fragmented, biased historical record that Cockrell deftly interprets, I also find myself rather inspired to think about what this raucous pre-ragtime dance music really sounded like. While there’s no way to ever truly recover it, I wonder how a “cover band” devoted to this “repertory” might approach it. I’ve got a string bass here at home; let me know if you’d like play fiddle or tambourine and make some “alleged” music together!