Copland: Old American Songs


Aaron Copland

Selections from Old American Songs (1950—1952)
The composer Benjamin Britten asked Copland to arrange a set of American folk tunes for his Music and Art Festival in Aldeburgh, England. Copland wrote five songs for male soloist and piano for the occasion: “The Boatmen’s Dance,” “The Dodger,” “Long Time Ago,” “Simple Gifts” and “I Bought Me a Cat.” The first set of Old American Songs was written in 1950 and premiered in June of that year by the famous tenor Peter Pears, with Britten at the piano. In 1951 the work premiered in America with Copland himself playing the piano and baritone William Warfield singing. Warfield would go on to become the singer most identified with the songs and spoke often on his collaborations with the composer. The songs were met with such success that Copland composed a second set in 1952 consisting of “The Little Horses,” “Zion’s Walls,” “The Golden Willow Tree,” “At the River” and “Ching-a-Ring Chaw.” The second set premiered in 1953, again with the Warfield/Copland pairing. Copland transcribed both sets for vocal soloist and orchestra in 1957, and many of the songs have been arranged for chorus and piano or chorus and orchestra.
The subject matter for Copland’s songs was drawn from several places, not all uniquely American—politics, religion, children, love and loss, death, and the minstrel stage. “Zion’s Walls” is a revivalist tune with words and music by John G. McCurry (1821 – 1886), a farmer from Georgia who published the song collection, The Social Harp. Copland used this song again in his opera, The Tender Land (1952-1954). Copland’s orchestration alternates between various instruments playing the tune with the singer and descant instrumental accompaniment, sometimes using both in one phrase.

Come fathers and mothers,
Come sisters and brothers,
Come join us in singing the praises of Zion.
O fathers, don’t you feel determined
To meet within the walls of Zion?
We’ll shout and go round
The walls of Zion.

When searching for songs to set for his Old American Songs Copland scoured the Brown University Library, specifically the Harris Collection, in search of interesting material. This proved very successful, yielding both “Long Time Ago” and “The Boatmen’s Dance.” “Long Time Ago” is a minstrel song with words attributed to George Pope in 1837, possibly adapted from John Cole (1833), and music by Charles Edward Horn. Copland uses solo flute and oboe along with reflective and tender string writing to convey the sadness of lost love and death.

On the lake where droop’d the willow
Long time ago,
Where the rock threw back the billow
Brighter than snow.
Dwelt a maid beloved and cherish’d
By high and low,
But with autumn leaf she perished
Long time ago.
Rock and tree and flowing water
Long time ago,
Bird and bee and blossom taught her
Love’s spell to know.
While to my fond words she listen’d
Murmuring low,
Tenderly her blue eyes glisten’d
Long time ago.

I Bought Me a Cat
“I Bought Me a Cat” is a whimsical children’s song in the style of “old MacDonald,” with a verse repeating and adding a new animal with each iteration (the last “animal” being a wife!). The song affords the soloist the opportunity to impersonate the various animals and the accompaniment simulates barnyard sounds of the cat, duck, goose, hen, pig, horse and cow.

I bought me a cat, my cat pleased me.
I fed my cat under yonder tree.
My cat says fiddle eye fee.
I bought me a duck, my duck pleased me.
I fed my duck under yonder tree.
My duck says, Quaa, quaa,
My cat says, fiddle eye fee.
I bought me a goose, my goose pleased me.
I fed my goose under yonder tree.
My goose says, Quaw, quaw, My duck says, Quaa, quaa,
My cat says fiddle eye fee.
I bought me a hen, my hen pleased me.
I fed my hen under yonder tree.
My hen says, Shimmy shack, shimmy shack,
My goose says…
I bought me a pig, my pig pleased me.
I fed my pig under yonder tree.
My pig says, Griffey, Griffey,
My hen says…
I bought me a cow, my cow pleased me.
I fed my cow under yonder tree.
My cow says Moo, moo, my pig says …
I bought me a horse, my horse pleased me.
I fed my horse under yonder tree.
My horse says, Neigh, neigh,
My cow says…
I bought me a wife, my wife pleased me.
I fed my wife under yonder tree.
My wife says, Honey, honey,
My horse says Neigh, neigh,
My cow says…

Simple Gifts
“Simple Gifts” is the most familiar of the tunes that Copland uses for his Old American Songs; it is of course the cornerstone melody of his 1944 ballet, Appalachian Spring. “Simple Gifts” is a Shaker hymn from 1848, the words and melody written by Elder Joseph Brackett, which was later quoted by Edward D. Andrews in his book The Gift to be Simple: Songs, Dances and Rituals of the American Shakers (1940). Copland uses a homophonic, chordal style of accompaniment for the uncomplicated melody. William Warfield noted that Copland had worked to achieve a recitative style by placing the simple accompaniment on the weak beats. This gives the illusion of a slower tempo, even though Copland’s treatment of the hymn is fairly brisk.

‘Tis the gift to be simple
‘Tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down
Where you ought to be
And when we find ourselves in the place just right
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed
To turn, turn will be our delight
‘Till by turning, turning, we come round right.

At the River
“At the River” is a gentle and much-loved hymn dating from 1865 by the Reverend Robert Lowry. Copland begins with a simple accompaniment which gains in strength and intensity beginning with the orchestral interlude before the third verse. “At the River” was used fittingly on memorial concerts for both Aaron Copland (with baritone, Kurt ollmann), and Leonard Bernstein (on the famed 1990, “A Concert Remembering Lenny” with Marilyn Horn).

Shall we gather by the river,
Where bright angels’ feet have trod,
With its crystal tide forever
Flowing by the throne of God.
Yes, we’ll gather by the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river,
Gather with the saints by the river
That flows by the throne of God.
Soon we’ll reach the shining river,
Soon our pilgrimage will cease,
Soon our happy hearts will quiver
With the melody of peace.

Ching-a-Ring Chaw
“Ching-a-Ring Chaw” is an early minstrel song. Copland found portions of the text in need of rewriting due to its minstrel origins. He said, “I did not want to take any chance of it being construed as racist.” In 1950’s America, this was a very enlightened viewpoint. “Ching-a-Ring Chaw” is a jaunty ditty, filled with syncopation and quick syllabic treatment. The accompaniment is characterized by afterbeats, string pizzicato and trombone solos.

Ching-a-ring-a ring ching ching,
Hoa dinga ding kum larkee,
Ching-a-ring-a ring ching ching,
Hoa ding kum larkee.
Brothers gather round,
Listen to this story,
‘Bout the promised land,
An’ the promised glory.
You don’ need to fear,
If you have no money,
You don’ need none there,
To buy you milk and honey.
There you’ll ride in style,
Coach with four white horses,
There the evenin’ meal,
Has one two three four courses.
Nights we all will dance
To the harp and fiddle,
Waltz and jig and prance,
“Cast off down the middle!”
When the mornin’ come,
All in grand and splendour,
Stand out in the sun,
And hear the holy thunder.
Brothers hear me out,
The promised land’s a-comin’
Dance and sing and shout,
I hear them harps a strummin.’

By the time the Old American Songs were written, much of America’s innocence was beginning to fade. The cold war was raging and Copland found this environment “stifling” to his compositional process. The simplicity of these ten songs, coupled with Copland’s sensitive treatment of them, seems to point to the composer’s desire to return to a less complicated period in time.