It all started when I tried to learn to play Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag on the piano. I never really got past the first couple of bars. Instead, I just found myself banging out this particular rhythm with my right hand. Loving such collections of 3s and 2s, I started counting along: 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2. This particular configuration (2+3+3+3+3+2) had never really leapt out at me, but once it did, I couldn’t stop hearing it. There it was in the horn line of Ray Charles’s “I Got a Woman” and in Scotty Moore’s guitar licks on Elvis Presley’s version of “Mystery Train”; and there again, rearing its head in countless disco songs, in bluegrass jams and “American primitive” guitar riffs, in Louis Armstrong solos, in house and techno, and even in rap cadences by 50 Cent, Kendrick, and Eminem. It seemed like there was a story here. But I wasn’t quite sure what sort of claims I could make.
Over the last 5 years, I collected dozens and then hundreds of examples, and I consulted all the musical experts I could: finger-picking guitarists and erudite scholars of American pop, Brazilianists and Cubanists, old time fiddlers and Ghanaian master drummers. In the end, the story seemed to get more legitimately remarkable. I couldn’t find many examples outside of the United States — a rare thing for a rhythm so clearly Afrodiasporic in character — and I couldn’t find any examples that pre-date the ragtime era. Indeed, the earliest example I could find was, for better and for worse, Ernest Hogan’s 1896 bestseller, “All Coons Look Alike to Me” — one of the first ragtime numbers to appear on sheet music and the inaugural “coon song,” an up-to-date extension of blackface minstrelsy that would dominate Tin Pan Alley for the next 15 years.
Indeed, it turns out that for some, such as black vaudevillian Tom Fletcher, author of 100 Years of the Negro in Show Business (1954), ragtime itself — and all that flowed from it — was inextricable from this particular rhythm (sometimes referred to as “secondary ragtime,” though that seems like a misnomer), and in Fletcher’s determination, all of that stretched right back to Hogan:
True, ragtime has been played in many different styles since it was first brought out, automobiles have also been made in many different styles since they were invented, and they are still automobiles. So whether you call it swing, jump, boogie woogie, syncopation, jazz, or what have you, it is still ragtime, and it is the rhythm that was discovered and introduced by Ernest Hogan in “All Coons Look Alike To Me,” copyrighted and published by Witmark and Sons in New York City in 1896.
The up-to-date-ness and blackness of this rhythm was part of its initial — and I would argue, its ongoing — allure, and yet the more I listened for it, the more I heard it carrying the opposite meaning on the other side of the “color line”: as a familiar figure evoking “old time” music, the putatively “white” “country” traditions that record companies first started marketing as such (despite their cross-racial heritage) beginning in the 1920s.
After several years of tracking the rhythm and working to assess the kind of claims I could make about it, I was finally inspired to bring it into public shape when I saw a call-for-papers for a special issue of the Journal of Popular Music Studies devoted to the untold stories of country music. The story of this rhythm, which I had begun calling “American clave” (again, for better or for worse), seemed like a great candidate. I was thrilled when the editors deemed my proposal worthy of inclusion, and that they shared my excitement about submitting the piece as a mini-essay and mega-mix.
I needn’t say more about it at this point, as I’ve already said more than enough in the mini-essay, the accompanying blog-post, and in the mega-mix itself (see the last link for audio and video versions of the mix and several “breakout” mini-mixes), which, I hope, says a lot of things that I can’t say myself — i.e., it lets all these recording artists “say” it themselves, together, in their own times and places and in their own revealing ways.
This feels like a real culmination of my adventures in technomusicology over the last decade, and I’m so excited to finally get it out there. Thanks, always, for listening along.