The best pieces of music inspired by American folk tunes
We choose some of the best works featuring American spirituals and folk songs
Dohnányi: American Rhapsody
Dohnányi didn’t exactly try to disguise the subject matter of his 1953 American Rhapsody in clever harmonic twists and turns. ‘On Top of Old Smo-key!’ blasts the brass section at the work’s ebullient opening, ‘all covered in snow.’
The mood then gets more sombre when we are introduced to ‘Poor wayfaring stranger’ by way of oboe and clarinet solos and, as the work progresses, we also hear references to various other American tunes, not least a jaunty rendition of ‘Turkey in the straw’ on the tuba.
For all the fun and games, however, the Hungarian composer also reminds us poignantly of his home country, which he left behind in 1944 – listen out for the brief reference to Kodaly’s Háry János, while the return to ‘Poor wayfaring stranger’ at the end is no accident.
Copland: Billy the Kid
Look to any number of Copland’s works from the 1930s onwards and you’ll find folk influences. Appalachian Spring – his 1940s ballet score – is a fine example, though the Shaker tune ‘Simple Gifts’, which features in part seven of the orchestral suite, is really more of a hymn. If you want legitimate folk song then look no further than his earlier ballet score for Billy the Kid.
Premiered in its orchestral setting in 1939, Copland was convinced by the ballet’s director Lincoln Kirstein to include traditional ‘Cowboy Songs’. The composer admitted later that he wasn’t entirely enamoured with the idea of using the ballads, which he felt were ‘less than exciting’, but once he began working with them he discovered their musical joys.
The work, about the period leading up 21-year-old outlaw William Bonney’s shooting in 1881, features six tunes: ‘Great Grandad’, ‘The Old Chisholm Trail’, ‘Git Along Little Dogies’, ‘Trouble for the Range Cook’, ‘Goodbye Old Paint’ and ‘The Dying Cowboy (Bury Me Not On The Lone Prairie)’.
It remains quintessential Copland and defined the soundworld of the ‘Old West’ for any composer that set foot in it thereafter.
Roy Harris: Symphony No. 4 ‘Folksong Symphony’
It was Copland who recommended that the Oklahoma-born, California-raised Roy Harris go to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger. He was soon on the path to becoming a prolific composer with 13 symphonies to his name.
His Third (1938) was hailed as ‘the first great symphony by an American composer’ by the conductor Serge Koussevitsky, while his Fourth drew on the fount of American traditional and folk melodies.
The colourful Folksong Symphony is a seven-movement work for chorus and orchestra, with its opening and closing movements based on the Civil War songs ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’ and ‘Johnny Comes Marching Home’. In between, we get cowboy and mountaineer songs, spirituals, and two orchestral interludes.
Florence Price: Five Folksongs in Counterpoint
Many of Florence Price’s compositions are rooted in the American spiritual tradition, reflecting her cultural heritage in the Deep South. Five Folksongs in Counterpoint features a handful of African-American spirituals played in contrapuntal textures: ‘Calvary’, ‘Clementine’, ‘Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes’, ‘Shortnin’ Bread’ and ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’.
Each spiritual is given slightly different treatment, with some in a hymn-like style and others performed in a lively fashion. Price framed these typically African-American spirituals within a traditionally European classical music form and tradition to reflect the melting pot of cultures in America at the time.
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William Bolcom: Complete Gospel Preludes
The Seattle-born composer bucks the traditional organ trend with these virtuosic arrangements of American spirituals and gospel hymns.
Blending jazz, cabaret, gospel (naturally) alongside smatterings of atonalism, Bolcom in his six books of preludes manages simultaneously to straddle the boundaries between the serious and light-hearted.
Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, based on a spiritual from the 1870s, is dedicated to Marvin Gaye who had just been murdered by his father. The jaunty pedal ostinato clashes with the increasingly ugly, dissonant chords in the manual to quite staggering effect.
Ruth Crawford Seeger: Rissolty, Rossolty
This whirlwind burst of orchestral colour and American folk song dates from 1939 and was commissioned by Alan Lomax for his CBS series American Folk Songs and Wellsprings of Music.
Crawford Seeger (1901-53) soon moved on to her ‘ultra-modern’ style, but the short Rissolty, Rossolty plays with three catchy melodies – the title song, another called ‘Phoebe’, and the fiddlers’ tune ‘The Death of Callahan’.
It’s wittily, smartly orchestrated, gathering pace towards an Ivesian moment where all three tunes are juxtaposed. And there are strong links to Copland: his orchestral piece John Henry was also commissioned by Lomax, and Copland used Crawford Seeger’s transcription of ‘Bonyparte’ for the ‘Hoe-Down’ in his ballet Rodeo.
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.