A self-professed "ragtime piano player," Ashwander's compositions and performances were largely responsible for the revival of interest in period ragtime (1897-1917) and the broadening and deepening of content and meaning in new ragtime works.
Donald Ashwander was born in 1929 in Birmingham, Alabama. His interest in American music led him to ragtime and other forms of American folk and popular music. After graduating from high school, Ashwander boarded the train, headed for New York City and enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music.
At that time, the New York musical scene was rigidly divided between the "classical" and the "popular," both flourishing independent of the other. While immersed in his studies, he attended many concerts and performances, but still found time to frequent out-of-the-way places where jazz reigned supreme. His interest in American music led him to Ragtime, Sacred Harp and other forms of American folk and popular music. Ashwander's life experience in the Deep South, the New York music scene, his worldwide travels and his enjoyment of people from diverse cultures are all components of his thoroughly unique "Americana" music.
It wasn't until Rudi Blesh's 1965 book "They All Played Ragtime" that Ashwander gained critical acclaim. In that book, two of his first piano rags, "Friday Night" and "Business in Town" were published, proving that ragtime was alive and well, even if the ragtime era "officially" ended in the early 1920's.
During the next 26 years, Ashwander continued to compose and record a new breed of ragtime, venturing into often unconventional musical territory, seeking to move outside the rigidity of the classical ragtime form while remaining committed to the possibilities he found apparent in its roots. His life experiences in the deep south, the New York music scene, his world-wide travels and his enjoyment of people from all cultures are all components of his thoroughly Americana music.
"If, as I had planned, I was going to spend my life composing music, I would have to try to derive a viable language from my very American but seemingly fragile musical legacy."
Donald Ashwander made many contributions to American music, both as composer and lyricist. He was honored by the Guide Foundation and received ASCAP awards. His work with The Paper Bag Players has been recognized with a New York State Governor's Award, as well as awards from the American Theater Association and The American Alliance for Theater and Education.
Here are Donald's own words about his lifetime in music, written in Brooklyn on May 1st, 1989.
"At Manhattan School of Music, I became adept at musical notation. I was not interested, however, in writing music in the 'International Style' which was the accepted academic mode of the time (1951). I realized that none of the musical languages I had studied would be right for me as a composer.
If, as I had planned, I was going to spend my life composing music, I would have to try to derive a viable language from my very American but seemingly fragile musical legacy.
The attempt to understand this legacy led me to relisten, with new purpose, to the hymns, Sacred Harp music, Southern black music and the popular music of the 1930's and 40's that had been the throwaways of my growing-up years. My efforts to define personal musical roots led me back through the spectrum of American music to its beginnings.
The process I found myself in seemed to be very slow-growing, requiring much patience. But I felt that this process would eventually result in a music that was truly myself, and firmly anchored to the world I knew.
The necessity of making a livelihood led me away from the New York musical into the world of the shipyard worker, the merchant seaman, the cocktail and piano-bar pianist and other more or less interesting stop-gaps. Instead of being detrimental, these new experiences away from the New York musical scene were nourishing. Musical composition continued to be the core of my life.
I deeply wanted my music to be liked, but a life spent chasing the will-o'-the-wisp of the popular hit was definitely not for me. When well-meaning family and friends would suggest that this was the only "realistic" course to be taken in this day and age, I would instantly be thrown into a profound and morbid depression. At times, it seemed I was neither fish nor fowl - fitting into neither the academic nor the commercial world. Those were dark moments.
It was not until my late thirties that it began to dawn on me that the musical language and method of work I had struggled over had begun to materialize. That was a very fine time for me, filled with assurance and contentment. The process continues."
Ashwander joined The Paper Bag Players in 1966, as resident composer, musical director and performer, he introduced the electric harpsichord (along with slide whistle, kazoo, rhythm box and an array of other instruments). Ashwander died suddenly on October 26, 1994 while walking onstage to perform with members of the The Paper Bag Players. Sharon Moore, his niece, expressed "He died too soon, only 65. I know he had every intention to write more, perform more, do more CDs. I feel he was at his peak and the older he got the better he would become. He was always exploring." The Paper Bag players still perform Ashwander's music 25 years after his death.
On January 1, 1995, Charles Osgood of CBS Sunday Morning, gave tribute to Donald in the broadcast's annual "Salute to Heroes" by saying, “He was, in fact, a serious composer, but a couple of generations of children loved him because onstage with The Paper Bag Players, he was anything but serious. Goodbye to a hero of glee.”
Dove In The Window (1970): Although Ashwander was mostly known for his ragtime compositions, he also wrote in other forms. Dove In The Window is a beautiful example of how he wove folk-like melodies into his piano pieces. This piece is part of a piano suite Ashwander wrote called Traditional Patterns.
Forgotten Ballrooms (1983): This is perhaps Donald Ashwander's most sentimental piano composition. Written in 1983, the piece pays homage to long abandoned and forgotten ballrooms - rooms filled with the atmospheres and dramas of long past.
Old Streets (1971): American jazz critic Rudi Blesh said of Ashwander's music - "He draws on memory and the unconscious. The memory may be childhood; or it may be today, remembered while composing at night. But it is always memory, a Remembrance of Things Past." Ashwander's piece "Old Streets" is indeed a memory of times past, of old Southern houses behind their ancient trees. Once again, Ashwander shows us his amazing gift of melody.
Wax Paper Dance (1967): This is an unpublished manuscript I was able to obtain from Ashwander's niece. It was was written in 1967 for The Paper Bag Players, a non-profit theater for children that started back in 1958. It features a beautiful syncopated melody, reminiscent of Ashwander's many ragtime compositions.
Locating the Music
Currently, there are two folios of Donald's music available. For ordering information, please contact Sharon Moore at email@example.com. The Ashwander family is working to make additional compositions available as well.
List of Piano Compositions
Nocturne in E (1959; revised 1979)
Friday Night (1965)
Astor Place Rag Waltz (1966)
Business in Town (1966)
Mobile Carnival Rag-Tango (1966)
Wax Paper Dance (1967)
Peacock Colors (1967)
Empty Porches (1969)
Old Streets (1971)
Waterloo Rag (1972)
Moving Man (1972; revised 1988)
Saratoga Rag (1974)
Sunday Night, Manhattan (1975)
Summer Garden (1976)
We Danced (1976)
The Garden at Night (1977)
Traditional Patterns (1970-79)
- Dove in the Window
- Crow Tracks
- Road to California
- Drunkard's Path
- Sunshine and Shadow
- Pine Tree
- Goose in the Pond
- Moonflower Vine
Forgotten Ballrooms (1983)
The Brooklyn Stop and Start (1984)
On the Highwire (1985)
Perdido Bay Moon Rag (1988)
Here and Gone (1989)
Yard Sale Rag (1992)