Maintain the Rag, A Celebration of the Whitlam Years

This is the text of Gough Whitlam’s speech to the Australian Institute of Music, in Sydney.

Thank you, Peter Calvo, for your introduction and your invitation to the John Painter Hall at the Australian Institute of Music. John Painter was a former director of the Canberra School of Music and is currently Senior Academic Advisor to this Australian Institute of Music.

I am happy that the most common question asked by reviewers of this CD is not “why celebrate the Whitlam years?” but rather “why celebrate them in rag?” The rag’s most distinctive feature is its syncopated melody. As a noted Italophile I point out “syncopation” is known to Italian musicians as alla zoppa, meaning “limping”, or literally, “as a cripple”. I trust my advancing years did not influence the choice.

It was a century ago this year that the first ever rag opera was performed; it was called “The Guest of Honour”. Perhaps that most famous of ragtime melodies, Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer”, could serve as an alternate title for this collection. I am told that even those who have never liked politics have at least found me entertaining. I take comfort that they come from near and far when I turn to vaudeville.

The Tango might have suited me but that’s gone already to Paul Keating in the first CD of this series. He is more the rose between the teeth type, anyway. He used to manage a rock band but the greatest rock band is named after me.

The Latin styles have a patchy record. Junie Morosi would have flashed a ravishing smile doing a rumba or salsa. Peter Costello could not even give a good smirk when he was learning the Macarena. A conga-line of Liberal sycophants has been identified by Mark Latham.

Films would be a better medium for Mark’s opponent and Peter’s successor, Tony Abbott. He would play a great punch-drunk Rocky Marciano or Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Nursery rhymes might suit some on my side. The clown Eric Roozendaal could be put back in his box. His candidate Humpty Dumpty has had a great fall; all the Queen’s horses and all the Queen’s men could not put Humpty together again.

For one of the Queen’s representatives Raffaele Marcellino should contribute drinking songs. Verdi composed a drinking song for a courtesan in Traviata and for a conspirator in Otello. My nominee was associated with both. He was first linked with Fancy Nancy at the Australian School of Pacific Administration after World War II. She could have starred in a revival of South Pacific.

Honest John’s first nominee, a pompous prelate, lasted less than two years. After his enthronement the Primate of All England sent him a doctorate from Lambeth Palace. It was an appropriate award for a colonial archbishop who had covered up for priests who had been doing the Lambeth Walk:

Everything free and sleazy
Do as you darn well pleasy
Why don’t you make your way there
Go there, stay there.

John Howard went further back in English music for his second nominee. In Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance he found the very model of a modern Major-General.

Liberal leaders have been a rich source for popular entertainers here and overseas. Malcolm is remembered in Memphis, Tennessee; Jolly John was fond of Ainslie in Canberra; Silly Billy wooed Sonia with “Fascination”; Alexander led a ragtime band.

When searching for a musical counterpart to those years in the early 1970s when Labor took office, the rag presents itself for very simple reasons. Its major stylistic feature is a busy, often witty and syncopated melody underpinned by a regular bass of steady purpose. From the moment we took office we had to be busy, clever and off-beat in order to achieve what was required by our strong, purposeful policies.

Men and women of Australia,

Maintain the Rag. It’s time.

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