Archeophone's Real Ragtime is a collection of recordings of historic performances of 29 ragtime numbers dating from 1898-1918, originally issued in 1998 with one track less when Archeophone was a CDR-only label. This revision is a standard mass-produced version of Real Ragtime with a greatly improved booklet and better sound quality. Yet the basic thrust of the package is still the same -- collecting ragtime music as it was represented by the early phonograph, which had a much broader context in terms of repertoire and performance styles than the scholars behind the piano-centered "ragtime revival" of the 1970s would acknowledge, or allow. There is not a single piano solo to be found in this volume -- although a few such recordings were made in this era, they are not common, and some, such as pianist C.H.H. Booth's 1901 recording of J. Bodewalt Lampe's rag Creole Belles, seem not to have come down to us. Banjo players, particularly Vess L. Ossman and Fred van Eps, dominate this collection, but it also features ragtime material recorded by brass bands, singers, guitarists, xylophonists, and accordionists. Most CD compilations of vintage ragtime music, particularly those produced overseas, derive from LP reissues and tend to focus on the same tracks from disc to disc with small variations. Nevertheless, nothing on Real Ragtime has been issued on CD before.
The sheer variety of approaches to ragtime exemplified on early phonograph recordings is staggering, and does tend to dilute the notion of ragtime as a "classic" kind of music -- perhaps that is why the ragtime revivalists limited their focus a bit more strictly than would be considered historically responsible among twenty first century scholars. However, it expands our understanding greatly about just how popular ragtime music was in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Here we hear vaudevillians Arthur Collins, Eddie Morton, and Gene Greene singing ragtime songs that have functional, even catchy lyrics. Some of the content of these words may seem racially derogatory in a politically correct era, and if the reader finds such material objectionable, then Real Ragtime is not for you, although in this case the collection is mainly an instrumental one. The sound quality is variable, ranging from excellent, such as in Some Baby, recorded in 1914 by the Van Eps Banjo Orchestra, to weakly audible, such as Ragged William, recorded by the house band at Victor in March 1901. In most cases, such tracks of the latter kind are in the minority -- in the main, Real Ragtime sounds terrific considering the age and variability of the material. Ragtime fanciers who want to get a grip on this uniquely American style of music in all of its variety will not want to miss Real Ragtime, and if this repackaged, sonically picked up version of the 1998 release is a success, hopefully we can look forward to a follow-up volume -- there is certainly well more out there.