If you ask Richard Dowling, Lady Gaga owes at least a little bit to musicians from more than 100 years ago.
All current popular music is indebted to the syncopated rhythms of ragtime, according to Dowling – an award-winning concert pianist, who will perform this weekend as part of the 30th annual West Coast Ragtime Festival in Rancho Cordova.
“Ragtime (popular betwen 1895 and 1918) was the beginning of America’s cultural takeover of the world,” Dowling said. “Because ragtime is the beginning of popular music in America, and we all know that popular music from America is the music that has drastically changed what everybody listens to on the planet.”
Those rhythms are the reason “audiences, American audiences, react so positively to ragtime,” Dowling said. “Because they feel the beat, and that beat is no different than a Lady Gaga tune. It’s just different harmonies.”
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As Dowling grew up in Texas, his mother pushed him to play piano, and the 1973 film “The Sting” turned him on to the sounds and styles of ragtime. The movie’s score featured Scott Joplin songs, adapted by Marvin Hamlisch.
“I heard ‘The Entertainer,’ and I went nuts,” he explained.
Dowling said he talked his piano teacher into getting him the music and soon learned the song. He next persuaded his mother to take a trip to a sheet-music store where she bought him the 1 1/2 -inch-thick music book – cover adorned with a green maple leaf – containing all of Joplin’s tunes. Dowling still owns that book. On April 1, the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death, Dowling will become the first pianist to publicly perform the complete works of Joplin at New York City’s legendary Carnegie Hall.
This weekend in Sacramento, Dowling joins fellow performers, groups and dance instructors for the West Coast Ragtime Festival. His performances during the festival include a two-person piano concert that features a “souped-up” version of the “William Tell Overture,” and a nine-piece set of works Joplin wrote with other musicians.
Dowling called the three-day festival a “family reunion.” After-hour sessions that start at 11 p.m. are a festival tradition.
“That’s when you really let your hair down, when we have some real jam sessions going on,” he said. “And that’s where it gets really fun, because, of course, alcohol and music mix really well together.”
Ragtime, Dowling said, is a genre that still resonates with audiences.
“When people hear ragtime today, they still fall in love with it,” Dowling said. “Especially Americans. … It’s America’s classical music, so to speak. And it doesn’t matter for whom you play it. People always tap their toes, they smile, they nod their heads, and afterward they say ‘I really loved that’ and that enthusiasm is what keeps all of us who are the musicians that love it so much coming back to it over and over and over.”
West Coast Ragtime Festival
When: Friday-Sunday, Nov. 18-20
Where: Sacramento Marriott Rancho Cordova, 11211 Point East Drive, Rancho Cordova
Information: (916) 638-1100, westcoastragtime.com