Baltimore Todolo

Eubie Blake composed the Baltimore Todolo in 1910.

I spent over 40 hours painstakingly transcribing this ragtime classic into LilyPond source code, without having viewed or referenced any other existing transcription. The idea was to generate sheet music that accurately represents the music exactly as played, as opposed to someone’s own approximate version of it. It’s gratifying to be able to play it just like Blake, complete with most of the proper timing and dynamics. It gives insight into the thought process and piano technique that makes his style unique, even clarifying some of the finger and hand motions he must have used.

When transcribing, it’s often difficult deciphering which notes are being played, especially in chords during noisy sections of music. This kind of transcription would not be possible without software like “Transcribe!” which performs a frequency analysis and allows the music to be played at speeds ranging from normal to very slow, without frequency shift – but also allows a frequency shift when it’s useful to better hear lower or higher notes. I often end up repeating a single chord for minutes on end while trying to reproduce the notes on my nearby piano keyboard until the right combination suddenly clicks in an “aha” moment.

In some cases it might appear a composer playing his own composition has made a “mistake.” However, one could reasonably argue that that’s not possible, especially since he never plays it the same way twice. For this reason I reproduce most of the oddities in the recording. Some of them include measure 8 (G+A), 56 (B-flat strike indicates probably played RH only), 67 (final F octave slid onto G), 82 (played even weirder than this), 84 (pounding almost indecipherable), 90 (the 2nd high D is played nearly as C, tied with the following C), 93 (he slides the 4th finger many times in Charleston Rag), 94 (odd RH), 96 (missing D-flat in LH).

Blake is often heard shouting phrases during live performances. Those are included for fun; I think I’ve got them right.

Like much ragtime music, this piece is to be “swung,” meaning that pairs of 8th notes are to be played more like triplet 8th notes, where an 8th rest is added in the middle of each pair. I note this at the beginning of the piece, then present the whole piece using plain 8th notes. I also have LilyPond add swing during MIDI generation. This method of writing swung music using plain 8ths is much preferable to what some transcribers do, which is to use a dotted 8th and a 16th. Besides resulting in a messy score, the rhythm is just wrong. The overly-pronounced swing irretrievably ruins the MIDI output. In this piece, the magnitude of the swing varies from considerable to barely detectable. I’ve tried to notate that using an asterisk for straight 8ths. There isn’t any standardized notation for that, other than by writing out the words straight eighths, which is overkill when just a few notes need to be straight, and frequently so.

The source recording I used was released by Columbia Records in 1969 and was made available on YouTube. I could only find this one version, unlike the Charleston Rag, which has a piano roll and at least three recorded performances by Blake himself. In the case of the Charleston Rag, my transcription is mostly accurate to a recording in 1972, but I also incorporated some details from an early piano roll that found more enjoyable to play.

Here is a cover page I designed using GIMP (the open source GNU image editor similar to Photoshop).

And here is a PDF of my transcription (4 pages):

Here is a MIDI file for download, and also an on-line MIDI player for instant gratification. This barebones MIDI player doesn’t do it justice, so I’d recommend downloading the MIDI and playing through a better program. LilyPond’s MIDI output is pretty good when using the “articulate” module. I also use a module that generates the swing (swing.scm), which I’ve further customized to exclude the small sections that are to be rendered as straight eighths.

Charleston Rag

The Charleston Rag originally went by other names such as “Sounds of Africa”. Eubie Blake composed this in 1899 while in his early teens. It didn’t get written down until as late as 1917 when it was also made into piano rolls.

Terry Waldo, a student of Eubie Blake, wrote a transcription in 1972 when Blake was in his 90s. Other publicly available sheet music is not of very high quality, so I determined to edit and typeset a version here. I referenced several sources for this:

  • Recording, “Philharmonie”, Berlin (1972)
  • Piano Roll, Haines Bros (1917)
  • Piano Roll, Witmark & Sons (1917)
  • Recording, “The African Rag”, Paramount (1921)
  • Recording, “The 86 Years of Eubie Blake” (1969)

First, a sheet music cover image that I created using Bing Generative AI (DALLE-3) and the GIMP image editing tool:

Here is the transcription (6 pages):

Here is the MIDI player and download:

Sinky O

For the first time, I attended the 3-day West Coast Ragtime Festival (2018) in Rancho Cordova, near Sacramento, California. It was about time, as I’ve been playing ragtime since high school and thinking about the festival for several years.

I spent about 3 solid days writing Sinky O, an original ragtime piece. I hoped to perform it during one of the few “open piano” sessions at the festival, which I did, but only a couple people were present and I did a lot of messing up.

There are some rough edges in the piece. The ending is sudden and the minor section is a little limited and repetitive. I may work on it some more.

The name is a play on the term “cinquillo,” which is one of three Spanish rhythms along with the tresillo and habanera. Cinquillo denotes a particular rhythm consisting of: 8th, 16th, 8th, 16th, 8th. Jelly Roll Morton’s works were influenced by Spanish music; he added what he referred to as the “Spanish Tinge”. Some ragtimes (e.g. Solace) were written using habanera.

Here is a cover sheet I designed using the help of generative AI and GIMP.

Here is a PDF of the score:

The recommended tempo is 200 to the 8th note (duration 3:00).

Merry Go Duet

If you have not yet seen the original post about my Merry Go transcription for player piano, please read about it here.

The transcription was initially organized in four voices in the Lilypond source file. This made it relatively easy to direct Lilypond to write out a couple extra scores for a single-piano duet version. The two treble voices can be played by Primo, and the two bass voices by Secondo. This shows the power of Lilypond for maintaining multiple renditions from a single source file.

The duet was still not immediately playable. A few chords had too many notes and needed minor tweaks. The last 3 measures needed an alternate playable version; I think I struck a reasonable compromise by having the players alternate the fast final runs, and by reducing the 3-octave run to 2-octave. And in this version, the final chord does not contain all eight C keys on the piano!

As of this writing, the duet has not been performed by two people. I did record myself playing Secondo and then played Primo over it, but there may remain some awkward overlaps with two players on one piano.

If you’d like to print the 6-page duet in book form, I would recommend printing page 4 as simplex, pages 1 and 5 as duplex, pages 2 and 6 as duplex, and page 3 as simplex. Then you’ll be able to have Secondo on the left facing Primo on the right, for 3 pairs of pages. The page numbering is designed with this scheme in mind.