By Thomas May
The musical traditions indigenous to the United States reflect the cultural heritage of a nation of immigrants and settlers always on the move. Diverse stylistic contributions have blended over the centuries to result in hardy new hybrids. Yet this remarkable flexibility coexists with the natural tendency of vernacular music to grow deep roots nurtured by the local climate.
The Master Chorale’s final program of the season brings us snapshots of the American experience as expressed through folk music—in both its sacred and its secular guises. We’ll encounter the fervor of hymns by rebellious colonials and the evolution of shape note singing into the bold populism of the Sacred Harp tradition. A sampling of classic American songs underlines their adaptability, which has inspired countless new incarnations in creative arrangements, such as those included here by Aaron Copland and the Master Chorale’s own Shawn Kirchner. And the concluding selection of African-American spirituals—in Moses Hogan’s rich restylings—is a testament to the enduring beauty of music originally rooted in a tragic period of American history. To paraphrase Lincoln’s unforgettable formulation, these are traditions that come to life as music of the people, by the people, for the people.
William Billings (1746-1800) represents a musical version of the self-made man in America’s transition from colony to independent nation. A tanner by trade in his native Boston, he taught himself music and soon began composing his own hymns as a counterpart to the imported traditions of British church music. Billings adapted these models—hymns based on the Biblical psalms or other religious sources, often featuring episodes of “fuguing”—into a vigorous style of singing that laid the foundation for an American choral tradition. “Fuguing-tunes” do not derive from the fugue of German-style counterpoint but are simply a way of spicing up the singers’ active involvement with a section of staggered entries following a unison verse at the beginning (Billings described this technique as “notes flying after the same”).
Over his career, Billings published several tune-book compilations, either recycling pre-existing texts (as in the case of “Jordan,” a psalm-tune from 1786 to words by Isaac Watts) or setting his own idiosyncratic paraphrases of scripture. The intensity of his religious faith spilled over into patriotic commitment. Though physical deformity prevented him from fighting in the Revolutionary War, Billings helped boost morale through the popularity of such anthems as “Chester” and “Retrospect.” Unfortunately, Billings also suffered a quintessentially American reversal of fortune in his final years, thanks to changing fashions in choral music. He died in poverty, and the full scope of his achievement would remain unrecognized until the early-music movement sparked a rediscovery.
Yet Billings wasn’t entirely neglected in the interim. As a singing master in New England, Billings himself had enthusiastically engaged in democratic efforts to spread the joys of ensemble singing to the musically untutored. Like-minded colleagues went on at the turn of the century to develop various shape note systems for musical notation. These provided a quick-and-easy shortcut to basic musical literacy and sight-reading by replacing standard notation with a small set of symbols (circles, squares, triangles, and diamonds to indicate different degrees of the scale).
“Diamonds in the Rough”
The shape note tradition eventually took root in the rural South, where it was codified in various competing anthologies. The most successful of these was The Sacred Harp: A Collection of Psalm and Hymn Tunes, Odes, and Anthems—to cite the longer title of this enormously influential publication, first issued in Georgia in 1844 and subsequently revised and expanded many times. Several of Billings’ best-loved tunes made their way into the repertory because they were gathered into The Sacred Harp.
This is a striking example of how authentic American sources, from a particular time and place, become “raw material” for an evolving folk tradition. “Hallelujah,” one of the most celebrated of Sacred Harp songs (with music by William Walker to Charles Wesley’s text), inspired Shawn Kirchner to create an arrangement that contrasts the energetic, raw harmonies of the original setting as they are heard in the chorus with a more elaborate, polyphonic treatment for the verses, adding interludes that he says are filled with “hallelujah’s leaping, plunging, and circling.”
Now in his ninth season singing tenor with the Master Chorale, Kirchner explains that choral arranging resembles taking “diamonds in the rough, which, with some polishing, will (hopefully) reveal a whole lot of beauty and light that people won’t have suspected was in there.” But he also attempts “to treat the arrangement as a spontaneous creation by a group of singers skilled in improvisation” so that “an organic creation results that is much more than the sum of its parts.”
Kirchner’s arrangements of the other two nineteenth-century songs in his set Heavenly Home reveal this approach as well. “Unclouded Day,” a gospel favorite by the traveling preacher J.K. Alwood, mixes in “Dolly Parton”-inflected harmonies for the women and a “bluegrass fugue” in the third verse. Kirchner was especially drawn to the poetry of “Angel Band”—the Haiti earthquake occurred while he was working on his arrangement—and he was moved to devise an accompanying melody of his own to contrast with the original tune.
The sacred music of popular tradition itself frequently involves a new arrangement or context for tunes that were originally secular. Some of the rhythmic and melodic impulses that permeate Sacred Harp singing stem from sources shared outright by classic American folk songs, reflecting geographical patterns of immigration. For example, the Scottish-via-Appalachia origin of a song such as “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” mirrors the Scottish/Irish lineage of several Sacred Harp songs (a significant percentage of which, incidentally, are also in the minor).
The American folk tunes we hear this evening are extraordinarily malleable—and can even survive countless parodies (as in “Oh, Dear! What Can the Matter Be?”—originally an old English nursery rhyme but sometimes heard in an off-color version about “seven old ladies” who get “locked in the lava’try”). “Shenandoah” has a long, colorful history as a sea and river shanty and also carries connotations from the Civil War era. Musically, it can be a haunting solo (it’s been recorded by artists from Bing Crosby to Van Morrison and Bob Dylan) but casts an especially beautiful spell in choral arrangements. Mack Wilberg elaborates the playful “Cindy” into a delightful miniature drama featuring dazzling duo-piano interludes.
The Sacred Harp: “A Nation of Individualists”
But even when it co-opted secular tunes—from love ballads or the country fiddler—the Sacred Harp tradition absorbed these into a unique sound that has been passed on through generations of performers who gather at regular “sings.” Much of this can be described in terms of such purely musical and acoustic characteristics: for example, the tenor, not the treble, carries the main melody (as is the case in the colonial hymns of Billings); the harmonies tend to be rough-hewn and robust, featuring open fifths and fourths; the highly energized intonation—traditionally resulting from the formation of the singers into a large hollow square in which they face each other—is far removed from the seamless, smooth blend of European classical music (several commentators have compared it to the rough sound of medieval polyphony).
At the same time, Sacred Harp is just as much about social communication and a kind of religious ecstasy. The publication itself was merely an attempt to codify an oral tradition that sprang into being during the Second Great Awakening of the early decades of the nineteenth century. Through the heart of this style runs the wonderful paradox of assertive singularity that is all the more thrilling within the context of a communal endeavor. Alan Lomax—an American Bartók in his lifelong commitment to ethnomusicology—made famous field recordings of the Sacred Harp phenomenon in action. For him, it represented “a choral style ready-made for a nation of individualists.”
Copland’s American Diversity
Aaron Copland similarly adapted from secular and sacred sources for Old American Songs, which he published in two sets of five each, in 1950 and 1952. (His original settings were for solo and piano; Irving Fine later arranged these for chorus.) One of Copland’s easily overlooked achievements here is to convey what biographer Howard Pollack calls “a diversified portrait of America itself, held together by the unity of Copland’s style.” His selections center around the antebellum and Civil War eras, when American identity was being tested and reforged. “Ching-a-Ring Chaw” derives from minstrel shows (Copland changed the dialect of the original texts and even rewrote the lyrics—aside from the chorus—since, as he explained, “I did not want to take any chance of it being construed as racist”).
Other aspects of American life include campaign songs such as “The Dodger”—associated with Grover Cleveland’s run against Republican opponent James Blaine in 1884—and a once-popular love ballad (“Long Time Ago”). Along with an affecting traditional Southern lullaby (“The Little Horses”), Copland draws on the tent-revival spiritual “Zion’s Walls” (a tune he soon recycled again for his opera The Tender Land).
Sing ‘til the Spirit Moves in My Heart: The Power of the Spiritual
As with so many other indigenous American musical traditions, the origins of the African-American spiritual are complex and multi-layered. But there’s an additional element of vagueness, because slaves who tried to maintain religious rituals brought over from Africa—including their musical expression in communal ring shouts and chants—were forced to practice them in secret. With conversion to Christianity and the revivalist fervor that also prompted the Sacred Harp movement, Southern slaves began to adopt Biblical imagery as lyrics for their spirituals. Still, this music continued to have a subversive aspect. The stories of Exodus, for example, served as allegories for the slaves’ present condition and longing for freedom (whether the spirituals were used more concretely to encode messages about the Underground Railroad remains a matter of conjecture).
Following Emancipation, spirituals entered a new phase of life as part of a concert performance tradition. They have proved to be moving vehicles of creative expression across the gamut, from solo renditions to small ensemble and full-blown choral arrangements—not to mention their use in instrumental music. Even so, the spiritual retains its power to symbolize the quest for social justice. New Orleans-born Moses Hogan (1957-2003), whose influential musical career was tragically cut short by his premature death, fashioned rapturously virtuosic arrangements of this rich material. “I’m Gonna Sing ‘til the Spirit Moves in my Heart” and “There Is a Balm in Gilead” dramatically reenact the call-and-response origins of the spiritual with their memorably imaginative interplay of solo and chorus.
Hogan knows exactly where to add a new, more poignant harmony or polyphonic texture to maximum effect—whether for the ethereal, bittersweetness of “Balm in Gilead” or the tour-de-force overlapping entries of “Elijah Rock.” Hogan’s settings pay homage to both the pain and the jubilant hope that this undying American musical form so eloquently voices.
Thomas May writes frequently about the arts and is the program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale.