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2011 - An Off-Beat Centennial

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This year in popular music wasn't too stunning.

Cee Lo's Forget You was fun, Born This Way was gaily re-assuring, Adele's continued success was a wonderful two-fingers up at the majors, and Bruno Mars reminded us that a boyish voice and a catchy song is still the mainstay of good pop but he hardly broke artistic barriers. And if I put pop before rock it's only because that's the way the year seemed to be. All in all, 2011 was pretty dull.

By contrast, one hundred years ago was one of the most exciting years ever in popular music. A year that changed it forever.

1911 saw two great seminal changes in popular music. It was the first time the biggest hit of the year was publicised as much by the sale of records as by sheet music. And it was the first time anyone had the faintest inkling that American black culture might become an influence on popular music throughout the world.

The song that did all this was Alexander's Rag Time Band by Irving Berlin.

Berlin was still an emerging young writer. He'd had a couple of previous hits but writing only the lyrics. He'd now started writing the music too and for some time had been trying to figure out how to incorporate black rhythms into popular songs.

America had already seen the influence of black culture on its music industry. It had started with coon songs in the 1890s - syncopated tunes with derogatory lyrics about watermelon-chicken-loving negroes; buffoons, good for a smile and a dance but not much else. The titles of these songs were appalling, like, If the Man in the Moon Was a Coon, or the hugely popular, All Coons Look Alike to Me. This last one was written by a vaudeville singer who himself was black and called himself The Unbleached American, Ernest Hogan. Black people found the song so offensive that a white man could intimidate them just by whistling the first two bars as they passed on the street.

Hogan was much abused by his own people for writing it but his big excuse was, it had introduced the general public to ragtime, a little bit of which was featured in the song. And maybe he was right. Because in 1899, Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag became the hit of the year, and thereafter ragtime became a staple of part American popular music. But it didn't go anywhere internationally until Irving Berlin came up with Alexander's Ragtime Band.

The song wasn't a real rag, it was just a clever pop song, a VERY clever one. A mix of black and white styles with military touches, not classic ragtime but with a syncopated feel similar to the rhythm of American speech.

Songs in those days took months to popularise. There was no radio and sheet music was the thing that was sold. Tunes were plugged by pianists in department stores and given to famous vaudeville singers to perform in their act.

Alexander's Ragtime Band was slow to catch on, even by the standards of the day. After a few months it began to sell a bit and became popular in what Irving Berlin described as "a mild pale-pink way". Eventually though, it took off. By mid-summer it had sold 500,000 copies and by the end of the year a million. And by that time it was happening worldwide.

One of the off-shoots of the its popularity was a boost in the popularity of the gramophone. The song started a new worldwide dance craze. Reading the sheet music and banging away on a piano wouldn't suffice. To dance to it you needed a record. And a gramophone. So all over the world the sales of gramophones increased, even as far away as Russia and China.

The song's international success was the first indication that American black music had the ability to influence popular culture across the world. Even though the song's black influences came second-hand, through the writing and performance of white musicians, it was from that moment on that popular music all over the world began to incorporate the beat and singing nuances of American black music, however subtly.

But that was to evolve gradually. There was one other change that came at once.

Irving Berlin's song bought a new kind of rhythm to the dance floor, ending the tradition of using military bands for dancing. Old-fashioned dance music had emphasised the 1st and 3rd beats of each bar. By copying the black man's ragtime rhythm, Irving Berlin moved the emphasis to the second and fourth beats.

Clapping your hands on 2 & 4 became the new beat of popular song. And has remained that way ever since.