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Selections from Old American Songs

About the Work

Aaron Copland
Quick Look Composer: Aaron Copland
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Season Opening Ball Concert Sun., Sep. 25, 2011, 7:00 PM
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Selections from Old American Songs

 

Aaron Copland

 

Born November 14, 1900 in Brooklyn, New York.

 

Died December 2, 1990 in North Tarrytown, New York.

 

Soon after he completed the imposing song cycle on Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson in March 1950, Copland turned his creative attention to some lighter fare by “newly arranging” a set of five traditional 19th-century American songs for voice and piano on a commission from English composer Benjamin Britten and tenor Peter Pears for performance at the Aldeburgh Festival. A second group of five followed in 1952, and Copland orchestrated Set I in 1954 and Set II three years later. In her study of Copland’s music, Julia Smith suggested that the Old American Songs form “a kind of vocal suite, the accompaniments, practical but exceedingly attractive, offer moods by turns nostalgic, energetic, sentimental, devotional and humorous.” The most familiar melody among these Songs is Simple Gifts, the evergreen Shaker tune (also known with an original text by British poet and folk singer Sydney Carter as The Lord of the Dance) that Copland had earlier used with such excellent effect in Appalachian Spring. Like the other Songs, it taps a deep, quintessentially American sentiment in its sturdy simplicity and its plain words, qualities that Copland captured perfectly in his colorful, atmospheric settings.

The following notes in the orchestral score give the sources for the Old American Songs:

The Dodger. As sung by Mrs. Emma Dusenberry of Mena, Arkansas, who learned it in the 1880s. Supposedly used in the Cleveland-Blaine presidential campaign of 1884. Published by John A. and Alan Lomax in Our Singing Country.

Simple Gifts. A favorite melody of the Shaker sect, from the period 1837-1847. The melody and words were quoted by Edward D. Andrews in his book of Shaker rituals, songs and dances, entitled The Gift To Be Simple.

The Little Horses. A children’s lullaby, originating in the Southern States, the date of this song is unknown. The adaptation is founded in part on John A. and Alan Lomax’s version in Folk Song U.S.A.

The Golden Willow Tree. A variant of the well-known Anglo-American ballad more usually called The Golden Vanity, this version is based on a recording issued by the Library of Congress Music Division from its collection of the Archive of American Folk Song. Justus Begley recorded it with banjo accompaniment for Alan and Elizabeth Lomax in 1937.

The Boatmen’s Dance. Published in Boston in 1843 as an ‘original banjo melody’ by Old Dan D. Emmett, who later composed Dixie. From the Harris Collection of American Poetry and Plays in Brown University.”

 

 

The Dodger

 

Yes, the candidate’s a dodger,

Yes, a well-known dodger,

The candidate’s a dodger,

Yes and I’m a dodger too.

 

He’ll meet you and treat you

And ask you for your vote,

But look out boys,

He’s a-dodging’ for a note.

 

Yes we’re all dodgin’,

a-dodgin’, dodgin’, dodgin’.

Yes we’re all dodgin’

Our way through the world.

 

Yes, the preacher he’s a dodger,

Yes, a well-known dodger,

The preacher he’s a dodger,

Yes and I’m a dodger too.

 

He’ll preach you a gospel

And tell you of your crimes

But look out boys

He’s a-dodgin’ for your dimes.

 

Yes we’re all dodgin’ ...

 

Yes, the lover he’s a dodger,

Yes, a well-known dodger,

The lover he’s a dodger,

Yes and I’m a dodger too.

 

He’ll hug you and kiss you

And call you his bride.

But look out girls

he’s a-tellin’ you a lie.

 

Yes we’re all dodgin’ ...

 

Simple Gifts

 

’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.

 

THE LITTLE HORSES

 

Hush you bye,

Don’t you cry,

Go to sleepy little baby.

When you wake,

You shall have

All the pretty little horses.

Blacks and bays,

Dapples and grays,

Coach and six a-little horses.

 

Hush you bye,

Don’t you cry,

Go to sleepy little baby.

When you wake,

You’ll have new cake

And all the pretty little horses.

A brown and a gray,

And a black and a bay,

And a coach and six a-little horses.

 

Hush you bye,

Don’t you cry,

Oh you pretty little baby.

Go to sleepy little baby,

Oh you pretty little baby.

 

The Golden Willow Tree

 

There was a little ship

In South Amerikee,

Crying O the land that lies so low.

There was a little ship

In South Amerikee,

She went by the name of

Golden Willow Tree,

As she sailed in the low land lonesome low,

As she sailed in the low land so low.

 

We hadn’t been a-sailin’

More than two weeks or three,

Till we came in sight of the British Roverie,

As she sailed in the low land lonesome low,

As she sailed in the low land so low.

 

Up stepped a little carpenter boy

Says “What will you give me for

The ship that I’ll destroy?”

“I’ll give you gold or I’ll give thee

The fairest of my daughters

As she sails upon the sea,

If you sink ’em in the low land lonesome low,

If you’ll sink ’em in the land that lies so low.”

 

He turned upon his back and away swum he,

He swum till he came to the British Roverie,

He had a little instrument fitted for his use,

He bored nine holes and he bored them all at once.

He turned upon his breast and back swum he,

He swum till he came to the Golden Willow Tree.

“Captain, O captain, come take me on board,

And do unto me as good as you word

For I sank ’em in the low land lonesome low,

I sank ’em in the low land so low.”

 

“Oh no, I won’t take you on board,

Oh no, I won’t take you on board,

Nor do unto you as good as my word,

Tho’ you sank ’em in the low land lonesome low,

Though you sank ’em in the land that lies so low.”

 

“If it wasn’t for the love that I have for your men.

I’d do unto you as I done unto them.

I’d sink you in the low land lonesome low,

I’d sink you in the low land so low.”

 

He turned upon his head and down swum he

He swum till he came to the bottom of the sea.

He sank himself in the low land lonesome low,

Sank himself in the land that lies so low.

 

The Boatmen’s Dance

 

High row the boatmen row,

Floatin’ down the river the Ohio.

 

The boatmen dance, the boatmen sing,

The boatmen up to ev’ry thing.

And when the boatman gets on shore,

He spends his cash and works for more.

 

Then dance the boatmen dance,

O dance the boatmen dance,

O dance all night ’til the broad daylight,

And go home with the gals in the mornin’.

 

I went on board the other day

To see what the boatmen had to say.

There I let my passion loose,

An’ they cram me in the callaboose.

 

O dance the boatmen dance, etc.

 

The boatman is a thrifty man.

There’s none can do as a boatman can.

I never see a pretty gal in my life,

But what she was a boatman’s wife.