The jolly flat boat men, painted by G.C. Bingham, esq., engraved by T. Doney, printed by Powell & Co., 1847. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
from Old American Songs, set 1, 1950
by Aaron Copland, 1900-1990
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 Britten's Music and Arts Festival in Aldeburgh, England. 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". The cycle was premiered by Britten and Pears on 17 June 1950 in England, while baritone William Warfield (with Copland at the piano) gave the first American performance on 28 January 1951. In 1952, the songs were published individually, having been transcribed for chorus in various voicings by Irving Fine, and an arrangement for voice and small orchestra was completed by Copland in 1954. Since their initial warm reception, the songs" popularity has only grown, undoubtedly due to the wide range of American historical themes that they embrace: the minstrel stage, politics, children and religion.
The first song in the collection, "The Boatmen's Dance," was Copland's arrangement of an original banjo melody by "Dixie" composer Dan Emmett (1815-1904) that was published in Boston in 1843. As the original text was laden with Negro dialect, Copland reworked the text so as to remove the racial connotations (in fact, Copland even changed the title from "De Boatman's Dance" as found in S. Foster Damon's Series of Old American Songs to "The Boatmen's Dance"). As far as the musical setting is concerned, Copland ingeniously designed the song to reflect the Ohio River landscape, as demonstrated by the call and echo effect employed prior to each verse.
The famous melody found in the fourth song of the collection, "Simple Gifts," was a favorite song of the Shaker sect, dating from 1837-1847. The text and melody were quoted by Edward D. Andrews in his in his book entitled The Gift to be Simple: Songs, Dances and Rituals of the American Shakers (New York: J.J. Augustin Publisher, 1940). This tune is undoubtedly familiar to most audiences as the Shaker melody had been featured prominently in Copland's ballet Appalachian Spring (1944) in a masterful set of variations. In scoring the melody for voice, however, Copland gave the song a recitative-like quality by incorporating an accompaniment squarely placed on weak beats, ensuring that this version of "Simple Gifts" would be sung without a regular rhythmic pulse. Vocal or orchestral medium aside, Copland's resurrection of "Simple Gifts" has promoted the once-forgotten Shaker melody to the prominent role of an American anthem.
Copland's holograph sketches for both sets of the Old American Songs can be accessed on-line through the Aaron Copland Collection at the Library of Congress: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/copland/index.html.