In 1950, composer Benjamin Britten and tenor Peter Pears commissioned Aaron Copland to arrange a set of American folk songs that they could perform at the Aldeburgh Festival with Britten at the piano. Copland obliged with an arrangement of five traditional American songs scored for voice and piano: ‘The Boatmen’s Dance’, ‘The Dodger’, ‘Long Time Ago’, ‘Simple Gifts’ and ‘I Bought Me a Cat’. An arrangement for voice and small orchestra was completed by Copland in 1954 and various composers have since arranged them for choir.
Copland wrote a second set of songs in 1952, of which two, ‘The Little Horses’, and ‘At the River’, will be performed tonight. Since their initial warm reception, the songs’ popularity has only grown, undoubtedly due to the wide range of historical themes that they embrace: politics, religion, children, love and loss, death and the minstrel stage.
The Boatmen’s Dance
An arrangement of an original banjo melody by composer Daniel Decatur Emmett (1815-1904), which was published in Boston in 1843. It celebrates the Ohio River boatmen, bawdy and wily, and includes the repeated clarion cry: ‘Hey, ho, the boatman row, sailin’ on the river on the Ohio’.
The Little Horses
This lullaby sung to a baby originated in the Southern States and was collected by Alan Lomax in Houston in the 1930s.
The song has been linked specifically with the presidential campaign of 1884 between Cleveland and Blaine, but recent research suggests that its origins may be older: by 1844, a British farce called The Artful Dodger was being performed in American theatres and contained a song ‘We’re all Dodging’. ‘The Dodger’ satirises several professions, but Copland retained only three in his version: the candidate, the preacher and the lover.
Long Time Ago
Issued in 1837 by the publisher and poet George Pope Morris, who adapted the words, and Charles Edward Horn, who arranged the music from an anonymous original minstrel tune. Copland uses solo flute and oboe along with reflective and tender string writing to convey the sadness of lost love and death.
Probably the most familiar of the tunes that Copland uses for his Old American Songs, this also features in his score for the 1944 ballet, Appalachian Spring. ‘Simple Gifts’ is a Shaker hymn from 1848 with words and melody by Elder Joseph Brackett. Several Shaker manuscripts indicate that it is a dancing song and the references to ‘turning’ mean that when the dance is performed, each dancer ends up where they started: ‘come ‘round right’.
At the River
An arrangement of a hymn written in 1865 by American poet and gospel music composer Robert Lowry (1826–1899). It has been sung on many US ceremonial occasions, including the memorial concerts for Leonard Bernstein and for Copland himself.
I Bought Me a Cat
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 addition being a wife!). The voices and the accompaniment imitate the barnyard sounds of the cat, duck, goose, hen, pig, horse and cow.