I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear; ...Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious songs. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855)
Although the song tradition in the United States is fairly young compared to that of Western Europe, there are still over two centuries’ worth of song composition in America. The birth of the American song coincided with the birth of the country; in fact, the first extant art songs in the United States are credited to Francis Hopkinson (1737-1791), a friend of George Washington and signer of the Declaration of Independence. The only American-born composer for whom there is evidence of having written songs prior to 1800, Hopkinson’s first song "My Days have been so Wondrous Free" was penned in 1759. In 1788, Hopkinson dedicated his A Washington Garland (originally titled Seven songs for the Harpsichord or Fortepiano) to the future president. In this collection, which actually contains eight songs, Hopkinson modeled the pieces after those written by English composers, including Thomas Arne and Stephen Storace.
As the dependence on the English style waned and American composers searched for a voice of their own, the African American spiritual captured the widespread attention of the nation roughly between the War of 1812 and the Civil War. The rise of the spiritual was facilitated by the advent of travel by steamboat, launched on the Mississippi in 1811, as well as by the formation of the minstrel show, the first national form of American musical theater. It was from these Mississippi steamboats that Northerners became acquainted with the work songs and spirituals of African Americans. Stephen Foster (1826-1864) was one such “northerner” enamored with the musical heritage of the South. Born in Pennsylvania, Foster composed over two hundred songs, set mostly to his own texts. While the most famous of his songs, such as "Oh! Susanna" (first performed in 1847) and "Old Folks at Home" (1851) were written for minstrel shows, Foster’s later songs, notably the ballad "Beautiful Dreamer" (1864), were devoid of southern traits. Other composers influenced by African American songs include Ohio native Dan Emmett (1815-1904), whose "De Boatman’s Dance" (1843) was later arranged by Aaron Copland. Ironically, Emmett is best remembered today for his tribute to the south, "Dixie" (1859), perhaps the most famous song from the Civil War era.
Toward the turn of the century, composers became more ambitious, branching out from what became known as “popular song” and turning their creative energy to the more serious “art song.” This trend was sparked by many American composers’ decision to study in Europe; as a result, they were exposed to the German lied as well as the French mélodie, song forms that emphasized the fusion of poetry and music. European-trained composers, including Edward MacDowell (1860-1908), Charles T. Griffes (1884-1920), and Charles Loeffler (1861-1935), skillfully crafted songs that transformed European aesthetic values into works with uniquely American qualities. In addition, since pianos were found in most nineteenth-century homes, women typically burdened with domestic activities were also able to pursue careers in composition. Amy Cheney Beach (1867-1944), for instance, made significant contributions to the American song repertoire, thus paving the way for other female composers, including Florence Price (1887-1953) and Elinor Remick Warren (1900-1991).
Indigenous music continued to serve as the basis for American song composition. Henry [Harry] T. Burleigh’s (1866-1949) harmonized arrangements of African American spirituals, including his well-known adaptation of "Deep River" (contained in Jubilee Songs of the USA, 1916), were some of the first to be presented on the concert stage. His "Ethiopia Saluting the Colors" (1915), to a text by Walt Whitman, is a dramatic account of an African American woman and her chance meeting with a Union Soldier. Arthur Farwell (1872-1952), whose songs were relatively free of European influences, drew heavily upon American Indian melodies as the foundation of his songs. Due to his difficulty in securing a publisher for his music, he founded the Wa-Wan Press, which operated between 1901-1912, specifically for the publication and dissemination of music incorporating American folk material.
Charles Ives (1874-1954) composed some of the most distinct songs to become part of America’s song heritage; in fact, his song catalog is one of the largest produced by an American. A respected business executive, Ives composed mostly at night and on weekends. His financial stability as an insurance professional enabled him to privately publish his first collection, titled 114 Songs (1922). Ives’s songs contain quotations from American hymns, war songs, popular songs, and cowboy ballads, and incorporate unusual techniques and effects that bear his distinctive and eclectic stamp.
Notable composers of the American concert song from the first half of the twentieth century include Aaron Copland (1900-1990) and Samuel Barber (1910-1981). Copland, whose song opus is primarily defined by his Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson (1949-50), also arranged two sets of Old American Songs (1950 and 1952). Described as a diversified portrait of America, the former set contains Copland’s arrangement of Dan Emmett’s “The Boatmen’s Dance” and the Shaker tune “Simple Gifts,” whereas the latter set includes his adaptation of the gospel hymn “At the River,” and the minstrel song “Ching-a-Ring Chaw,” famous for its nonsense syllable-laden chorus. An accomplished baritone himself, Samuel Barber possessed one of the most lyric compositional voices of the twentieth century. Barber’s family was a musical one: his aunt, Louise Homer (1871-1947), was a leading contralto with the Metropolitan opera, and his uncle, Sidney Homer (1864-1953), was a distinguished composer of art songs who served as Barber’s mentor for over thirty years. While a large portion of his vocal works are set to texts by European authors and poets, Barber did set American texts, notably James Agee’s "Sure on This Shining Night" (contained in Four Songs, Op. 13, no. 3, 1937-40) and Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (1947), scored for soprano voice and orchestra.
After World War II, several developments had an effect on the composition of the American art song. First, American poetry flourished and, by the middle of the twentieth century, composers were afforded a rich resource of native texts and literature. Consequently, the poet’s voice itself began to play an integral role in the creative process of song composition, a trend previously established in the settings of Gertrude Stein’s texts. Among those whose effectively set Stein’s poetry were Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) and John Cage (1912-1992). Another factor influencing the composition of American song after 1950 was the increased use of serial techniques. This style of composition, typically associated with the works of Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, is found in the songs of Milton Babbitt (b.1916) and Ruth Crawford (1901-1953). In addition to these trends, composers abandoned the traditional piano accompaniment in favor of more alternative sonorities, as in the case of Cage’s use of closed piano in The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs (1942), or Babbitt’s combination of voice and electronic tape in Vision and Prayer (1961) and Phonemena (1975). Other contemporary proponents of twentieth-century American song include Paul Bowles (1910-1999) and Ned Rorem (b.1923).
Although a full account of the American art song is beyond the scope of this introduction, it is hoped that these highlights will serve as an inspiration to further explore and appreciate America’s song tradition. The journey of the American art song has not traveled for very long but it has certainly traveled wide: from the Psalm settings and hymns of the East, hillbilly and cowboy songs of the West, to the work songs of the North, and the minstrel songs and spirituals of the South. While it is too soon to predict the impact the American art song will have on the twenty-first century, it is certain to reflect the varied and diverse musical and cultural heritage of the United States.
In addition to the information about songs from this tour, the Library of Congress provides manuscripts, first editions of sheet music, copyright deposits, and recordings of historic American songs through its Song of America presentation on the Performing Arts Encyclopedia.