CAE POPS! Songs and Hymns of America Program Notes

I Hear America Singing

America’s musical heritage mirrors the contradictions of the nation’s history, for better and worse. In the 19th century, for instance, when most of the songs on our program originated, the issue of slavery nearly tore the country apart. During that time, two kinds of music emerged that modern audiences sometimes find problematic—spirituals and minstrel songs—because both slavery and blackface performance undermine America’s stated ideals. Nevertheless, this concert’s exploration of American music includes songs from both traditions, and several others, because all of this music pervaded the lives of ordinary Americans. Like us, they were trying to make sense of their world, so we hope our music will not just entertain but also broaden our understanding.

We begin with “Zion’s Walls” from Old American Songs by Aaron Copland (1900-1990), one of the major American serious composers of the 20th century. He based all ten of the songs, from various genres, on materials he found while doing research in the Sheet Music Collection at Brown University around 1950. This song started as a revivalist hymn, with words and music by John G. McCurry (1821-1886), a Georgia farmer. Soon after doing this setting, Copland used the tune again in his folk opera for television, The Tender Land; that version, titled “The Promise of Living,” has a more secular focus and ends by praising the values of labor, sharing, and loving.

Drawing on both Anglo-American hymns and African music, spirituals radically reinterpreted Biblical texts in light of the experiences of the enslaved people who created these songs. In the face of crushing external circumstances, they asserted their human worth in music. Few white Americans, certainly in the North, knew anything about spirituals until after the Civil War, when Northerners who served with freed African American troops published the lyrics they had heard. In 1872, singers from Fisk University performed these songs at the World Peace Jubilee, and spirituals quickly became almost a concert fad. Spirituals offer one of the few windows into the inner lives of enslaved people, yet, despite their beauty and power, they hold a legacy of pain.

That pain comes through clearly in “A Spiritual Reflection” by Moses Hogan (1957- 2002), the renowned expert on spirituals who composed it for us and conducted its world premiere here in 2000. The piece weaves together two heartbreaking spirituals. The first, “A City Called Heaven,” shares some similarities with the text of “Poor Wayfaring Stranger.” The second, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” reflects one of the cruelest trials that enslaved people endured—the separation of families when parents or children were literally “sold down the river.” At first, the lower voices seem to trudge wearily through life. Soon all the voices swirl like a storm around the lonely pilgrim who longs only for a heavenly home after death, and even that hope seems far away.

Hogan’s setting of “Elijah Rock,” however, pulses with the rhythmic energy typical of his work. The arrangement builds like a church service, full of calls, responses, and encouragement to pray. The voices keep adding layers of texture until, like Elijah ascending to Heaven in his chariot, they rise, one after another, on the words “coming up, Lord!”  CAE also sang this piece under Hogan’s direction in 2000.

No one knows the exact origin of “Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” but the words are often attributed to Bishop Richard Allen, founder of the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church, as he was dying. If true, it would date from around 1831, and versions appeared in hymnals as early as the 1850s. Like the intertwined songs of “A Spiritual Reflection,” it focuses on separation from parents and on life as an unhappy pilgrimage before finally reaching the “bright land” of Heaven.

“It Is Well” has tragic origins that highlight the deep faith behind it. Lawyer Horatio Spafford (1828-1888) lost most of his family when all four of his daughters were drowned in the wreck of the Ville de Havre en route across the Atlantic to Europe; only their mother survived. As he traveled to rejoin his grieving wife, his ship passed where he believed the tragedy had happened, which inspired the hymn’s text. Philip Bliss (1838-1876) wrote the music and named the tune after the ill-fated ship; the two men knew each other through their mutual friend, evangelist Dwight Moody.

We close the first half with Heavenly Home, a set of three hymns arranged by Shawn Kirchner. All three sound almost like folk songs, but they actually began as written poems and music. Charles Wesley (1707-1788), brother of Methodism’s founder John Wesley and author of over 6,000 hymns, wrote the text for “Hallelujah” in 1759; Baptist song leader William Walker (1809-1875) composed the music in 1835. Walker is best known for compiling Southern Harmony, a classic collection of Sacred Harp songs. Sacred Harp music was especially popular early in the 19th century in the South and Midwest, where rural families from a wide area would gather to spend whole days singing and feasting together. The repeated chorus still includes Sacred Harp’s characteristic use of open fourths and fifths. Kirchner considers “Angel Band,” with its rich harmonization, as the heart of the piece. With words by Jefferson Hascall (1807-1887), the gently rocking tune by William Bradbury (1816-1868) still offers a comforting sense of joyful peace, as it has since its publication in 1862. Finally, Rev. J.K. Alwood (1828-1909), a circuit-riding United Brethren pastor, wrote both the words and music for “Unclouded Day” in 1879. All three songs focus on Heaven as our true home, as a place to reunite with lost or distant family, and this longing likely reflected the frequent isolation and loneliness of rural and frontier life.

“Nearer, My God, to Thee” differs from most of our program because an Englishwoman, Sarah Flower Adams (1805-1848), wrote the words in 1841, and her sister, Eliza, composed the first setting. Yet American Lowell Mason (1792-1872), music educator and composer of hundreds of hymns, wrote the music for our version. In this way, the hymn illustrates the blended Anglo-American Victorian culture of urban America. This setting sets the hymn’s original text against words in Latin about God raising us even in the moment of death. It comes to us via BYU Vocal Point, the nine-member male a cappella group at Brigham Young University that also did our setting of “It Is Well.”

The next four pieces all come from Copland’s Old American Songs and show that he intended the varied styles to reveal different aspects of 19th-century American culture. Baptist minister Robert Lowry (1826-1899) wrote the words and music for “At the River” in 1864. Though Lowry wrote this hymn in New York, many associate it with the West, probably because movie director John Ford included it in several of his westerns. Copland had already used the music of the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” in Appalachian Spring, a ballet composed for Martha Graham in 1944, but here he also uses the original words, written by Elder Joseph Brackett in 1848. The sentimental ballad “Long Time Ago,” first published in 1837, contains many typical Victorian images—drooping willows, fair but doomed maidens–but the music was an anonymous minstrel tune.

The last of the four, “Ching-a-ring Chaw,” shows the part of minstrelsy that modern audiences find disturbing. While we can appreciate the ingenuity of using syllables to sound like a banjo, we also know that minstrel shows featured white performers in blackface who offered versions of African American life ranging from mildly condescending to downright racist. Some speculate that these images allowed white Americans to allay anxieties about slavery and race; others argue that portraying African Americans as inferior implicitly justified slavery itself. Copland, aware of this complex heritage, thoroughly rewrote the text, keeping only nonsense syllables of the chorus. He explicitly called this a minstrel song, perhaps to force us to consider at what point a melody itself, given new lyrics and a new intent, can stand on its own, divorced from its origins.

The career of Stephen Foster (1826-1864) illustrates just how complicated questions about minstrelsy can become. Beloved songs like “O Susanna” and “My Old Kentucky Home” got their start in minstrel shows and painted a benign picture of slavery, though Foster had little direct knowledge of Southern life and traveled in the South only once, on his honeymoon. When the Civil War came, he supported the Union and even wrote recruiting songs, such as “We’re Coming, Father Abram, 300,000 More.” The poignant “Hard Times” (1854) falls into yet another category of what were called parlor songs, intended to be sung around the piano in middle-class homes. The song appeals to the comfortable to remember those who had lost everything in the 19th-century’s boom-and-bust economy. Foster himself could have served as a prime example: though America’s most popular composer, he died virtually penniless just ten years after writing this song.

Our next three songs bring us into the 20th century, even as the same themes keep coming up. “Wanting Memories” by Dr. Ysaye Barnwell (b. 1946) revisits how people make sense of their lives without the presence of family and loved ones, especially parents. Her answer settles on reintegrating the best parts of those relationships into ourselves with love and gratitude. Best known as a singer and composer with the all-woman African American a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, founded by Civil Rights icon Bernice Johnson Reagon in 1973, Barnwell has also taught, written children’s books, and led workshops on “Building a Vocal Community: Singing in the African American Tradition.”

In closing, we return to that tradition with two songs popularized by Texas gospel blues singer, guitarist, and evangelist Blind Willie Johnson (1897-1945). Mostly a street performer and preacher, Johnson recorded 30 gospel songs in the late 1920s, but they attracted little attention until the 1960s. “Keep Your Lamps” refers to the Biblical parable of the wise and foolish virgins, with its foreboding warning of God’s return on the Day of Judgment.

Even more powerfully, “John the Revelator” sets up an intense dialogue between the singers and the author of the book of Revelation, who vividly depicted the end of this world as well as the world to come. This rousing -song brings us full circle to where we began, envisioning the glory within the walls of Zion.

– Susan Wladaver-Morgan