Some Folks Do
PETER DALE listens to American Song on two new CDs
This first disc is a revelation and a delight. Of all the vast riches
of American song - from Appalachian Folksongs to Broadway, from Blues to
Samuel Barber, from Negro Spirituals to Tin Pan Alley - the first eleven
of these 26 songs must represent one of the very least known areas. The
compiler (and performer, with the help of several others playing and singing
from time to time) calls the groups of songs 'Old Ghosts in a New Arcadia'.
They are solo songs for the most part which take for granted among their
listeners the community of shared ideals of Early American Republicanism.
The flavour is often conveyed in advance by the titles: The Musical Society,
Adams and Liberty, Sophronia. Sometimes the songs give way
(but willingly) their origins or backgrounds in other, pre-American Arcadias.
Diogenes Surly and Proud, Corydon's Ghost, Alloa House.
The point, of course, is that the songs are old wines (British folksong
idioms, ancient Greek democratic ideals, Elizabethan pastoral, etc) in self-consciously
new American bottles. The effects are simple but not crude, sincere but
not self-promoting, and very, very affecting. This is music, to us now,
of a lost Eden where 'the gift to be simple' brought with it so much that
must have been very real to these early republicans singing and listening
around the hearth - things that we are left with words for (but not much
else): neighbourliness, community, optimism, conviction, and so on.
It seems that between 1790 and 1820 there was something like 15,000 musical
publications in the fledgeling American states. It's an astonishing figure,
and it must represent almost everything from shape-singing Psalmodies to
parlour Song Books - almost everything in fact except what we (looking down
our noses?) would call art songs. Well, these may not match, let us say,
Henry Bishop or Sterndale Bennett in musical sophistication, but what they
lack in artistry they simply make up for in art of another and very considerable
There's a second group called 'At the Meeting House'- Hymns from the
Shaker Communities and from Revival Meetings', the last of which is by Stephen
Foster, no less, and this leads on to a final group of eight all by Foster
himself and called generically 'A Summer Evening with Friends'. There are
one or two old favourites (Some Folks Do, Gentle Annie) and
others less familiar but no less delightful. Foster, we see now, could touch
upon the particular so vividly, and the universal so deftly that high-brows
are disarmed at the same time that low-brows are completely won over. That,
in a nut-shell, must be the greatest gift of American music to the world
at large, and here perhaps is its original first-begetter.
The whole disc deliberately stops short at 1860, the end of the American
Idyll as Daniel McCabe sees it, and the threshold of the Civil War. By chance,
as it happened, I was looking at an old copy of The Washington Intelligence
a few days ago. It was the edition for April 14th, 1820 - right in the middle
of the span of all these songs - but every day's copy was probably very
similar. Among all the news and gossip were announcements of two rewards
for lost chattels: twenty dollars for a pet dog; fifty dollars for a runaway
slave. In grim cameo, there is the worm in the otherwise beautiful rose
of America's Arcadia: the battle for the values by which a society could
stand and sustain itself without shame and without compromise.
One of the enduring characteristics of American music throughout our
own century has been its tendency sometimes to nostalgia for this lost Eden.
Copland's music leaps to mind of course, but the same nostalgia is one of
the mainstays of a lot of American popular musicals too, and it's the life-blood
of Country Music and Rhythm and Blues. This most enjoyable disc of early
songs reveals where it all began, but without the whimsy of nostalgia because
this is not harking back; this is the real thing.
Excellent recording and performances, including an American flute of
1830 and a harmonium of 1847, though this not a disc for antiquarians. It's
too important and too enjoyable for them alone.
Exactly coinciding with the terminal date of the songs on this first
disc was the birth of Edward MacDowell, the composer whom most of us see
as flying the flag for American music in the late nineteenth century, and
an Arcadian to boot if only because we've all played and loved To a Wild
Steven Sharp and James Barbagallo perform all of MacDowell's 42 songs
on this second disc. To some extent at least, comparisons between the two
records are fair. They're certainly fascinating. First, and most obviously,
the songs on An American Idyll in no way pre-figure the work of MacDowell,
nor does he in any sense take up where they left off. MacDowell's is music
for the concert hall, not the parlour or the Meeting House. The audience
has shrunk in size from Everyman to the Boston intelligentsia. The musical
sophistication assumed of the audience is correspondingly much larger. There
are losses and gains. The music no longer sounds especially American. MacDowell's
voice is a curious one: his harmony is from the European salon but his texts
(and many of them are his own) play upon floral associations and rural idealisations
which do indeed suggest an American Idyll, or at least an affectation of
one. They don't convince, however. The great (and great American) visions
of Emerson and Whitman have been reduced to what strike me as Victorian
bedding schemes and make me think that, much though I admire Tennyson, his
influence upon his imitators has been baleful. The generally indifferent
texts drive these songs, but the music occasionally rises above them. The
Slumber Song is beautiful. Sunrise is powerful. Bluebell
is witty. The accompaniments are always appropriate (is that the trouble,
in fact?) and effortlessly played here though clearly technically demanding.
The vocal lines however rarely reach beyond the companionable. The melodies
are neither simple enough to remember (and then enjoy meeting again) nor
developed enough to colour the rather pale texts. There are glimpses of
Grieg and Fauré in the accompaniments, perhaps even of Brahms, but
in the end Grieg's gift for melody, Fauré's for refinement and Brahms'
for virtually everything whose sum amounts to character seems to evade MacDowell.
As elements in a recital of MacDowell's piano music, some of these songs
would be very welcome. They would be equally at home in Boston, Massachusetts
or Boston, Lincolnshire. That is both their strength and their weakness.
On the whole, I think we have to be grateful that the history of American
music at large has placed less store by the salon and recital room than
MacDowell's songs clearly inclined to.
|An American Idyll - American Songs from 1800-1860|
Fleur de Son Classics FDS 57924 DDD
Edward MacDowell - Complete Songs
Steven Tharp, tenor; James Barbagallo, piano
Marco Polo 8.223866 DDD
THIS CD FROM CROTCHET
Copyright © Peter Dale, May
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