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Old Folks at Home - cover sheet music

[Detail] Old Folks at Home - sheet music


A number of songs in Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1820-1860 take poems from well-known authors as their lyrics. For example, there are songs based on poems by Thomas Moore, Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Henry Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Robert Herrick, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Milton, Sir Walter Scott, John Greenleaf Whittier, and William Wordsworth, among others.

Classical poetry and song lyrics have several similarities, including consistent meter and rhyming. Still, writing a melody to fit an existing poem provides challenges for the composer. One of the challenges is structural. While poems often have stanzas, many songs have verses and a chorus (a repeated section). Some songs also have bridges, sections that provide a transition from one part of the song to the next; the bridge often has a different rhythm and sound from the rest of the song. Length may also be a challenge — a poem can be any length, while a song is generally fairly short. Language can also pose problems — the language of a song may need to be simpler than the language of a poem because the listener has less opportunity to ponder its meaning than the reader of a poem.

Consider the following poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:


L'eternite est une pendule, dont le balancier dit et redit sans
cesse ces deux mots seulement dans le silence des tombeaux:
'Toujours! jamais! Jamais! toujours!' — JACQUES BRIDAINE.

Somewhat back from the village street
Stands the old-fashioned country-seat.
Across its antique portico
Tall poplar-trees their shadows throw;
And from its station in the hall
An ancient timepiece says to all, —
'Forever — never!
Never — forever!'

Half-way up the stairs it stands,
And points and beckons with its hands
From its case of massive oak,
Like a monk, who, under his cloak,
Crosses himself, and sighs, alas!
With sorrowful voice to all who pass, —
'Forever — never!
Never — forever!'

By day its voice is low and light;
But in the silent dead of night,
Distinct as a passing footstep's fall,
It echoes along the vacant hall,
Along the ceiling, along the floor,
And seems to say, at each chamber-door, —
'Forever — never!
Never — forever!'

Through days of sorrow and of mirth,
Through days of death and days of birth,
Through every swift vicissitude
Of changeful time, unchanged it has stood,
And as if, like God, it all things saw,
It calmly repeats those words of awe, —
'Forever — never!
Never — forever!'

In that mansion used to be
Free-hearted Hospitality;
His great fires up the chimney roared;
The stranger feasted at his board;
But, like the skeleton at the feast,
That warning timepiece never ceased, —
'Forever — never!
Never — forever!'

There groups of merry children played,
There youths and maidens dreaming strayed;
O precious hours! O golden prime,
And affluence of love and time!
Even as a Miser counts his gold,
Those hours the ancient timepiece told, —
'Forever — never!
Never — forever!'

From that chamber, clothed in white,
The bride came forth on her wedding night;
There, in that silent room below,
The dead lay in his shroud of snow;
And in the hush that followed the prayer,
Was heard the old clock on the stair, —
'Forever — never!
Never — forever!'

All are scattered now and fled,
Some are married, some are dead;
And when I ask, with throbs of pain.
'Ah! when shall they all meet again?'
As in the days long since gone by,
The ancient timepiece makes reply, —
'Forever — never!
Never — forever!'

Never here, forever there,
Where all parting, pain, and care,
And death, and time shall disappear, —
Forever there, but never here!
The horologe of Eternity
Sayeth this incessantly, —
'Forever — never!
Never — forever!'"

  • What challenges would this poem pose for the composer? Consider its length, structure, and language, as well as any other factors that seem problematic to you. How might the composer solve these problems?
  • Examine a song based on this poem in the Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1820-1860 collection. How has the composer adapted the poem? Do you think these adaptations are good solutions to the challenges you noted above? Are there any adaptations you would object to if you were the poet?
  • Does the song have the same meaning as the poem? Why or why not?
  • Find two more songs with lyrics by one or more of the poets listed above. Compare the songs with the original poems. Do you notice any similarities in the kinds of adaptations made by the composers?
  • Given the challenges of composing a song whose lyrics are an existing poem, why would a composer decide to take this approach? Do you have a favorite poem that you would like to hear set to music?
  • Why might using a contemporary poem as the lyrics for a song be even more difficult than using a poem from the eighteenth or nineteenth century? The Poetry and Literature Center of the Library of Congress is a good place to explore this question.