An American music style called Ragtime became popular in 1899 with the publication of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.” This music, featuring syncopated (ragged-time) rhythms, evolved from Cakewalks, Jigs, Two-steps and Marches commonly played by African American musicians. “Dill Pickle Rag” (aka “Dill Pickles”) was composed in 1906 by Charles L. Johnson, a successful African American composer from Kansas City, and became the first Ragtime tune to sell more than a million copies of sheet music. It was also one of the first major hits from Tin Pan Alley - the music industry of that time marketing popular songs. The chief device that made “Dill Pickles” so attractive was the 3-note-melody-against-a-4-beat-rhythm pattern that subsequently became a standard motif in Ragtime music.
Many of the early “rags” were in fact Cakewalks, a dance (once called the Chalk-line Walk) that developed on Southern plantations in the 1850s. Fieldhands would hold dances on Sundays and Holidays satirizing the proper Minuets and Quadrilles danced at the fancy balls. The couples or “walkers,” promenading in a dignified manner, would mimic their owners by high-stepping, strutting, bowing low, arching their backs, waving canes, tipping hats and throwing back their heads. Some of the plantation owners found this very entertaining and began to bake special cakes and award them as prizes to the best dancers of the day - coining the phrase: “That takes the cake!”
The popularity of the Cakewalk soon spread to the North and also to Europe. In 1913, legendary classical composer Claude Debussy composed and published “Golliwog¹s Cakewalk,” titled for his daughter's minstrel dolls the likes of which were also becoming popular all over Europe. Early Southern Cakewalk music, often played on the violin, contained both syncopated and Cuban habanera/contradanza rhythms. The music of these Cakewalks and Jubilees are the earliest examples of the use of “swung rhythm,” but it was the evolution into Ragtime that eventually solidified this unique rhythmic sound and feel into an important category of American Musical Art. “Dill Pickle Rag,” like many other Rags, has become a staple in the old-time fiddle tune repertoire.
For this tune and more, check out Mark O'Connor's The Championship Years.
From Book II of the O'Connor Method.