Scottish ragtime? - hmm, does he mean Scott-ish as in Scott Joplin? Well, not exactly - although there's something of the scholarly, well-measured Joshua Rifkin delivery about the performances on this CD. But those readers with more than a little knowledge of ragtime as a musical genre will initially be rather puzzled - if not outright disbelieving - that this music might have been circulating in Scotland in any "early" era. After all, it originated in America didn't it? Well, the sub-title of this CD, "Proto-Ragtime And American Dance Tunes in Britain In The 18th & 19th Centuries", gives more of a clue. It turns out from Vic's research that since the 18th century (and particularly since 1840), a number of dance tunes which originated in North America have appeared in British - in many cases Scottish - tune books.
Many of these tunes have features commonly associated with ragtime as we know it, especially syncopation. Although Vic's principal "quarry" for the tunes chosen for this disc is the second volume of Kerr's Merry Melodies, which was published in Glasgow in the mid-to-late 1880s or thereabouts, its pages of "Negro Sand Jigs, Plantation Dances And Walk Rounds form, he believes, but the tip of an iceberg of performance of American tunes in Britain from the mid-19th century. Consider also that the great Tyneside songwriters of that time often plagiarised American tunes for their songs (check out the tune-set that forms this disc's finale, and try to Keep Your Feet Still!) … and remember that "musically and personally, we are all mongrels". So in listening to this thoroughly delightful CD, we need to lay aside our preconceptions of exactly what ragtime should sound like and how it should be played. In cognisance (of course), of Joplin's on advice to performers not to play rags too fast, and by going back to piano scores and early sound recordings.
Vic has gathered together a group of musicians comprising long-time friends, erstwhile colleagues and students from the Newcastle degree course, who play this music elegantly and yet with gusto and zeal - a convivial session-style feel of real enjoyment - while also observing a disciplined tightness and crispness of execution, that the historical perspective to syncopation demands. Vic's partners-in-crime here comprise Stewart Hardy, Steve Harrison, Sandra Kerr, Dan Walsh, Desi Wilkinson, Cecilia Winterbottom and Sam Robson, between them playing banjos, mandolin, fiddle, concertinas, mouth organ, flute, bass and piano.
The result is delicious and inviting, with not a whiff of dusty academe for all that the booklet essay (and its gloriously expanded version on Vic's writings website) is scholarly and clear-sighted. You need to wipe the slate of memory clean as you play this CD, enjoying the music for what it is, for there are multifarious discoveries and correspondences along the way, as when familiar elements such as the Scotch snap are brought into a different and unusual context (the Aird Set) and the stepped rhythms of the penultimate set seem almost a precursor of reggae.
Banjo tunes and minstrel-show numbers all invariably come into their own when the syncopations are shared quirkily and sometimes unpredictably among the various parts, and tunes that are called jigs don't always seem to be in what we know as jig rhythm (ha!). The whole subject of proto-ragtime becomes an intriguing subject for further discussion, indeed.
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