Adam Swanson introduces his new release Ragtime Australia! Twenty never before recorded works by Australian composers of the ragtime era (1902-1943) as if it was simply an opportunity that presented itself, a little side project so to speak. He is being far too modest. Despite being a download-only affair, a lot of work went into this album. The liner notes, in PDF form, would run to 16 pages printed as a booklet.
Those notes detail the where and why. The project was inspired by Adam’s tour of Australia in 2018, and made possible by his friendship with Michael Mathew, of Melbourne, the sorcerer behind the online Ragtime Compendium. Along with David Beattie of New South Wales, Mathew provided the scores that make up this album. Certain parameters were set, the presentation is simple and almost entirely as written aside from “filling in left hand patterns or adding a repeat occasionally.” The focus is kept to the original ragtimers and novelty artists, excluding those Australian revivalists that came along a bit later.
Using the grand piano at his parent’s house Swanson had hoped only to make a standard presentation of these unheard works so that his fellow musicians might adopt them into their repertoires. They are presented chronologically without regard to overall balance as an album. He chose the twenty he deemed best, or most critical, out of forty selections at hand. While they aren’t played with the focused energy he might put into a studio album, if his goal was to present these as blandly as MIDI files he failed. While they lack flourish and show they are interesting enough in their own right, and he is such a gifted pianist that even when sticking to script this album entertains and will be an attractive acquisition for any ragtime fan.
Ragtime historians and those with a curiosity about Australia will also be thrilled. The balance of the notes devote a few sentences to each track, tidbits about the composer, or the themes and events inspiring the title. We learn of the prolific song writer Reginald Alberto Agrati Stoneham who wrote such period gems as “You Ragged Your Way into my Heart.” Amusingly Aussie titles abound including “Ab-Original Rag” and “By the Big Blue Billabong.”
Charley Straight and Gene Greene are the only non-Australians among the composers. It is likely they wrote “Australian Rag” while on tour there in 1913. One title included is a tribute to Greene published during that tour. Adam notes that, as in America, much that we wouldn’t now consider ragtime was published under that umbrella during the period. He also concludes that compositions in Australia seemed to lag about ten years behind stylistic developments in America.
All of this is fascinating. While we often think of Ragtime as an American form, it was also an American cultural export from its earliest years. In the decades following the Civil War American artists routinely toured Europe, Australia, South Africa, and Japan, often in large vaudeville troupes. They left lasting, and sometimes strange cultural impacts wherever they landed. At a hundred years remove Adam Swanson is bringing some of that back to us.