15 Ragtime Compositions
(Pianomania Music Publishing, Roseville, CA, 1993 - CD)
Status: Available at JazzByMail
Since early childhood I have been writing, painting and composing. I remember no time when my identity was ambiguous, my goals uncertain, or my inclinations unrevealed. I did not identify with people around me but with "historical" figures. The assumption that I was akin to people whose acts were preserved in books and that I, too, would enter the encyclopedias seems to have always been with me. I felt estranged from children and adults, especially the former, and remained disappointed in both. The anguish of school life was a force that has persisted in affecting my associations with all people.
Moss Point is a paper milling town on the Escatawpa River just off the Gulf coastline. There the coastal marsh and savannah meet river swamp to compile a roaring dictionary of greens. Bordering this network are pockets of the vast pine forest that overspreads south Mississippi. To the north, along the Pascagoula River, stretches one of the few intact major river swamps in North America. Southeast of Moss Point, on the fringe of the terrain that melts into bayous and open water, is the village of Kreole; to the southwest is the port and shipbuilding center of Pascagoula. In this collage of vegetation, industry and shoreline, I was born.
One of my most reassuring associations with Kreole and Moss Point is the memory of late night beeping and clacking of the paper mill as I lay on the verge of sleep. Moss Point. . . that sad river town with its boxcars, shrimp boats, tangled foliage, half-cleared lots and loneliness whose somber lyric goes on quavering in my dreams, on desks, in pianos, and windows...
I have always been moved by props, more than by the activities for which they were devised. All objects are fair fodder for an imagination unrestricted by conventional socialization and decorum. An inanimate assembly, free of the visibility of its arranger, intimates mysterious experience of the type that preoccupies me. The untranslatable intrigues voiced by isolated or shut-down communities, remote dwellings, lost articles, farm equipment or construction machinery unattended, warehouses, railroads, factories, the props of the highway... such images are central to my life. They are carriers of the most urgent mysteries and evocations; they are vehicles of dire longing.
I have frequently pretended to love objects more than people. There have been many favorites--road signs, Victorian buildings, gravestones, UFOs, devices of punishment (I owned a full-sized, functional guillotine and stocks which were displayed in the yard when I was eleven), wind stockings, and many others. "Utilitarian" artifacts even more than "art" objects received attention that, under other circumstances, could have been claimed by humans. Structures in conjunction with terrain came to uniquely embody the identity and need of love for me. Through the land-object collaboration I possessed a conduit of love. Through fields, ballparks, subdivision streets, pine tickets and houses at swamp-side, my love of women screamed and fought to nourish its irrepressible life.
Perhaps none of my work is conceived in removal from eroticism. Anguish, idealization, revulsion, the intoxication of crudity and the vitality of sustained longing--all of these are ready informants of my erotic outlook and have sustained my ragtime language.
It was the shattering clash of sexuality with the self-image and values of my childhood that dominated my first worthwhile paintings, writings and compositions. This conflict, which I never expect or intend to see resolved, reinforced my early-acquired notion that beauty and preciosity are intrinsically tragic. It was against this backdrop that ragtime, which I had loved years earlier, was re-projected into my life at age sixteen. And it was in ragtime, as I listened, learned, experimented and dreamed here in Moss Point, that I recognized such trusting utterance for that confluence of anguish and innocence.
It was at age seventeen that I fully absorbed the tenets of surrealism as outlined by Andre Breton and began to practice them as a poet. About a year earlier, exposure to Dylan Thomas had set free my relationship with words, showing me that certain seemingly remote associations appearing conjunctively yielded the possibility of hinting at everything I had dreamed of voicing. At that time I also encountered the work of Pierre Reverdy, the Cubist poet and precursor of surrealism whose tone so affected me that I have never sought to distance myself from it.
It was some years later that I read of James Dickey's call for "country surrealism." My reaction was that I had personified such a designation.
Though the identity of my present visual art language had manifested much of itself in my early to middle teens, it was my discovery of the book Outsider Art by Roger Cardinal in 1975 that, while affirming my oneiric predilections, jolted me toward an even more "aberrant," anti-rational, anti-social mode, a ruthless frontiersmanship of the oneiromantic wilderness. The visionary utterance of such socially deviant artists as Adolf Wölfi, Heinrich Anton Müller and Friedrich Schröder Sonnenstern would henceforth remind me of stances and standards I would do well to regard as variations of my own.
My land obsession thrashes in acceleration. More than ever I'm driven by oneiric salvos of terrain and its loneliest accoutrements. For a terrain wrangler, the man-land romance is the unassailable thriller, the unwavering surcharger en route to mystery upon mystery. From the piney-macabre roads curling around Vestry, Mississippi, to the bristling, scrubby, shack-and-trailer-flung ridges of the eastern Missouri Ozarks, to the Magellanic lostness of eastern Colorado's plains and the Rocky Mountains' leering stands of lodgepole pine, I am collecting vessels of transcendence, my enduring citadels.
Ragtime. Here is the musical medium ideally designed to reflect both the legacy of romanticism and the folk consciousness of the Americas. Sporting a concentrated structure that should appeal to any classicist, it may dare to tackle utterance as personal as Schumann's while acknowledging collective voices as naturally as do Foster and Gottschalk. As I have written elsewhere, the piano rag is limited only by the mind of its practitioner. In such pieces as For Molly Kaufmann, in which the non-developmental rag structure is gently overturned or left behind at crucial points, I have tried to pioneer a hybrid whose limitations will be defined as other composers hone their ragtime visions. I am now 38 years old. I have been working as a ragtime composer for over half my life. It is now clear that my devotion has not been to a medium that serves as a mere alternative to other art musics; I have been blessed to participate in the development of the New World art music of today.
- Waterloo Girls (1980). Its title referring to an Illinois town through which I used to pass en route to St. Louis from Carbondale, this work is a memento of my travels through countrified mid-America.
Although I have betrayed it in many works and lesser actions, I am committed to optimism. I offer Waterloo Girls as a testament to an optimism thriving on anguish and pointing, a little coquettishly, to rapture.
- Camille (1979, for Morria Ratcliff). In early 1979 1 was commissioned by sheet music collector John Dawson to write a rag named for his little daughter. He hoped that its pianistic demands would not greatly exceed his capability, but I soon decided that his potential capacity was the only one to be considered. Camille became a challenging work by my own standards. With John's permission I dedicated it to Morris Ratcliff, whose sudden break with me after our living together for three years precipitated the piece's content. The great Morten Gunnar Larsen recorded Camille in Oslo in 1983 and has since made it a specialty. My previous recording was made on January 4 of the same year in the Colorado village of Niwot.
- Kreole (1978). This ringing folk rag was begun as I rode through the upper eastern Missouri Ozarks in June 1978. Inflamed with the Brun Campbell recordings I had been hearing back in St. Louis, I found myself fashioning Kreole's opening bars. I furthered this in St. Louis and completed the piece after returning to New Orleans. Long ago, Kreole--in or near which much of my life has been spent--was absorbed by Moss Point, but the signs denoting it on Highway 90 have been allowed to stand.
- Frederic And The Coast (1979). This habanera is a souvenir of the great hurricane that attacked coastal Mississippi, Alabama and Florida on September 12-13, 1979. Returning from Kansas City more than a week after Frederic hit, I witnessed fresh signs of devastation in Pascagoula, Moss Point and Ocean Springs. In a few days, Frederic and the Coast was underway. For me it is associated with landscapes of resignation and the tragic peace known to coastlines that have been battered and transformed by their waters.
- Madison Heights Girl (1979). The world of country string band music, particularly as expressed in the breakdown tradition, influenced this piece. The town of Madison Heights is just outside Lynchburg, Virginia.
- Poplarville (1979). What is the town of Poplarville? A shadowed hive of windows and crossroads clicking helplessly in the pinelands, the seat of Pearl River County, Mississippi, a cornerstone of imaginary eroticism, a dream-fed complex of hermetic longing ... In a domain where towns are strewn through the woods like lost maps, Poplarville is a spectral hub. Around it are stationed centers of my nocturnal adventures--Carriere, McNeil, Pine Grove Road, Crossroads, Red Top Road and the terrifying Henleyfield. Poplarville's spectrum is the incarnation of the town-and-land mystery so changelessly near the center of my consciousness.
- Through the Bottomlands (1980, for Vicki Picou). Bottomlands are defined as low-lying areas near rivers containing rich alluvial soil. But for me the connotation is far richer than the definition. The word "bottomlands" evokes wetlands as well as farmland; it recalls rural isolation, tiny, half-tilled farmlands bordering swamps, the poverty of families reliant upon meager vegetable outputs, dreams of the land and its human tenants existing inseparably ...
- Pinelands Memoir (1978). I have called this ambitious piece the musical culmination of my relationship with south Mississippi. It began as an improvisation at the Gazebo in New Orleans, and was completed in practice rooms of Tulane University's music department (whose faculty had offered me the use of pianos). The parallel octaves doubling the melody in section A were inspired by the second strain of Callis Wellborn Jackson's Texas Rag (1905), to which I had recently been introduced by Trebor Jay Tichenor. Shot through with essences of folk ragtime, hymns and country music, it is evocative of the deeply wooded backroads of south Mississippi's Piney Woods, its churches, farmhouses, creeks and logging trails. It is also an anthem of immovable regional pride, unabashed in tenderness and ferocity ...
- For Kansas City (1980). On an extended stay in Kansas City in the summer of 1980 1 became interested in exploring Grundy County in northern Missouri. To help me fund such an excursion John Dawson and Don Lampman commissioned me to write a rag related to my Kansas City experience. This thick-textured, demanding and passionate piece was the result. It may be saddening to note the virtual discontinuation of my association with Kansas City. I never made it to Grandy County.
- The Girl Who Moved Away (1981-1982, for B. and B.). The mingling of romanticism and folk ragtime is ideally expressive of many of my ragtime-related concerns. This wistful rag brings the two together again and encircles the union with hints of country music.
- Mississippi Brown Eyes (1989). Frank French was the first to record this piece, and included it on his CD, More American Souvenirs. Mississippi Brown Eyes is typical of my ouvre in that folkish materials are given an overtly romantic twist with Latin elements appearing along the way. Important is the variational repeat of the trio, which recasts much of the strain in preparation of the climactic D section.
- The Early Life of Larry Hoffer (1977). The remarkable Mississippi composer Larry Hoffer was born in Poplarville in 1951. He lived in Mars Hill and Sardis, Mississippi before being brought by his parents to Meridian, where he grew up. Showing great aptitude early on, he was discouraged by his mother from studying piano and composing. He did find a modicum of training, however, and eventually arrived at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg where I met him in 1973. His brilliance and relentless devotion to his earliest visions in the face of neglect and opposition should exhilarate every true outsider. The Early Life of Larry Hoffer is reflective not only of the dark and marvellous Mississippi interior from which Larry came, but of the urban frights of New Orleans and strip joints, tourism and port city toughness of the Mississippi coast--elements once foreign to Larry but which must be counted in my link to him and to all who peopled my own early life.
- The South Mississippi Glide (1978). I have called this work "a study in restrained intensity." The first strain contains a quote from the hymn, "Just As I Am."
- Roberto Clemente (1979). Roberto Clemente, the legendary right-fielder of the Pittsburgh Pirates, was born in Carolina, Puerto Rico in 1934 and died on New Year's Eve, 1972 off the coast of his native island in a plane that never reached the Nicaraguan earthquake victims to whom it was carrying supplies. Although familiar with Clemente during his career, I was no more mindful of him than of some other outstanding ballplayers. It was the film about him shown during the 1979 World Series that transformed my image of Clemente into a myth to be recalled with obsessive affection. Incisively moved by this poetic series of glimpses of his career and the circumstances of his death, I had decided by the film's end that there must exist a ragtime composition for Clemente, a piece evocative of the man as I had viewed him via the documentary.
I have referred to Roberto Clemente as a "folk elegy" and a "country funeral." Marked "warmly and solemnly," it is a rag forthrightly typifying the plaintiveness--the gentle anguish, even--that I have always associated with the lyrical medium of ragtime.
- María Antonieta Pons (1986-1987). It was late summer, 1985 when I set eyes upon the image of Cuban dancer María Antonieta Pons. I was in LA visiting visual artist William Bailey (also known as William Azteca), who is a fan of the Galavisión TV network. The 1950s Mexican film Flor de Canela, starring María Antonieta Pons, was aired on the afternoon of my arrival. Her effect upon me remains inspirational, transporting me to the center of my love of this life.
The voice of my forbearer Louis Moreau Gottschalk is evident here, particularly in section D, but surely not so boomingly as to hinder the cry of my own. Indeed, I count María among the works that encapsulate, to the limit of my musical ability, the nationalistic essences that haunt me.
I now conclude most concerts with María instead of Roberto Clemente, which served as a finale for several years. Now, at a time when I crave vitality and savor the prospect of triumph at every turn, a summary must be more a measure of my desire than a reaction to anguish, proof that I am again on the quest for rapture.
David Thomas Roberts
Recording date: October 9-15, 1992
Album Front: Another Night, Another Nocturne (1987) by David Thomas Roberts