Laws with Flaws: Banning Ragtime

Laws with Flaws: Ragtime Banned. Vintage photo of a ragtime dancing couple

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By RANDOLPH HOBLER

When it comes to top contenders for America’s Sin City, might I suggest Belt, Montana? In 1913, the city fathers felt certain Belt was soon to descend into a den of iniquity. A morass of promiscuity. That the city council included a judge, an ice purveyor, and an undertaker no doubt contributed to their Puritan sensibilities. 

To stave off a moral catastrophe, they declared, “Hey, we’ll just pass a law!” Well, it was a town, so, OK, an ordinance. 

The ordinance? Banning ragtime.

“All rag dances, such as the Duck Wobble, the Grizzly Bear, the Kangaroo Glide, the Angleworm Wiggle, and any such rag dances of an indecent nature at any public or private dance are subject to a forfeit into the police fund of the city treasury of from not less than $5 nor more than $50.” 

Your reaction to this might be “Hunh?” Time to unpack this. 

“Rag dances”? We’re talking ragtime dances. Quite the rage from 1899 to 1919. They are Scott Joplin-like-quaint-but-infectious tunes like “The Entertainer,”, made famous in the 1973 movie The Sting, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. This innocent song has since been immortalized as one of the top 10 songs of the 20th century. (Check it out on YouTube.)

Why did the city fathers of Belt choose those four dances? There were no kangaroos hopping or grizzly bears marauding in Belt. Migratory ducks did stop by, but they didn’t wobble. And there were wiggly worms aplenty in the soil. For that we’ll grant the town government a grudging “attaboy.” 

They might well have chosen any of the other 195 or so “animal” ragtime dances published in this naughty era, including “The Baboon Bounce,” “The Blundering Buffalo,” “The Boiled Owl,” “The Lobster Glide,” “The Potato Bug Parade,” “The Possum Trot,” and “The Fresno Flea.” Note nearly every one of these sheet music songs corresponded to its own dance. (Just like “The Twist” in 1959.)

You might be wondering how, in 1913, without television, radio, or the internet, fads could spread so quickly to remote hamlets like Belt, population 1,158. For starters, the Belt Valley Times and The Great Falls Tribune reported on national events. Almost every home had a piano with sheet music in abundance. And many had Victrolas. 

The ground was ripe for new dances. In 1908, young women reported that going to the dance hall was their favorite activity. Each week, Belters frequented the likes of the Opera House, The Belt Social Club, and the Tleb Dancing Club. The local Crescent Orchestra, for one, would often play till 4 AM. 

The lyrics to “Grizzly Bear” were written by none other than Irving Berlin (later the composer of “White Christmas”), helping propel its popularity. While the chorus included the licentious line “hug up close to your baby,” no lyric touched upon anything to do with bears. (In his early years, Irving was not above jumping on bandwagons.) 

Most important were the traveling variety shows—vaudeville. With thousands of venues, thousands of trouping performers criss-crossing every nook and crevice of the country by railroad, local citizens, including those in Belt, could view the latest dances and share with friends. 

As tame as these dances seem today, at the apex of ragtime’s popularity in 1913, they were considered a scandal. The issue? Hugging too closely. 

Partners could squeeze each other so tight there was not enough space between them “and the Holy Ghost.” Ragtime was decried as a threat to mental health. The Women’s council of Sacramento declared ragtime “tended towards evil.” Blue-nose organizations claimed that girls who danced ragtime would be motivated to work in brothels. And it wasn’t just words bandied about. On March 17, 1913, in Grants Pass, Oregon, club owner Ed Spence was stabbed 11 times after trying to enforce his “no animal dances allowed rule” upon a couple caught dancing ragtime. 

And the topper? On January 20, 1913, Woodrow Wilson, afraid of a national scandal, canceled his entire inaugural ball for fear that participants would dance ragtime.  

Despite the outrage, these were laws without claws, destined to quickly melt away. For Belt, a constabulary of eight. But with 200 people dancing per night at the Belt Opera House alone, enforcement was futile. Too bad. With fines at $50 a pop, at just that one venue, the coffers of this town could have swelled to $10,000 every night. For the police department’s budget, that would have eliminated the need for any belt tightening. ISI

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