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Some Folks Do

PETER DALE listens to American Song on two new CDs

CD Review

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 kind.

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 Rose.

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
Daniel McCabe
Fleur de Son Classics FDS 57924             DDD

Edward MacDowell - Complete Songs
Steven Tharp, tenor; James Barbagallo, piano
Marco Polo 8.223866                 DDD


 Copyright © Peter Dale, May 10th 1999

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