Traditional American Songs I


Although America's musical roots are shared by much of the Western world, different nations and different regions have very different musical histories. The American musical tradition is based largely on folk music and popular music. This is so mainly because familiarity with Classical music has always been less prevalent in America than in many Western societies, in particular the older societies which now form the European Union. The emergence and development of American musical forms and styles forms a unique chapter in the history of music, one which reflects to a large extent the eclectic, independent, and creative character of the American people. Traditional American Songs is a collection of familiar tunes which, taken together, more or less define America musically (at least up to about the middle of the 20th century). Many of the songs included in this anthology, and especially the patriotic songs, are quite well known and are very much a part of the fabric of American society. Many offer important historical perspectives on the development of American music. The wide variety of musical styles represented in this anthology is indicative of the many diverse influences and trends which were part of that development. With a single exception, which will be noted in due course, all of the arrangements are in four parts.

The first volume begins with "America", which is also commonly known by the title "My Country, 'Tis Of Thee". Singing this simple song together has long been considered an essential part of American school children's everyday morning activities. It is given here in an appropriately simple arrangement which is highlighted by a dynamic bass line. The arrangement for "Yankee Doodle", a song which dates back to the Revolutionary War era in the 18th century, casts this well known tune in a somewhat quieter and more flowing musical context than is normally the case. George M. Cohan was one of the most important players in the early development of the American Broadway musical tradition. He wrote, produced, directed, and starred in a number of wildly successful productions in the early 20th century. In the arrangement for "The Yankee Doodle Boy", one of Cohan's better known songs, the interior parts create a lively rhythmic mood by sounding damped notes throughout. "Swanee River", also called "The Old Folks At Home", is a still-popular tune which was written in the mid 19th century by Stephen Foster, arguably the most celebrated American composer of that period. Unfortunately, Foster's celebrity did not materialize until well after he died in poverty and obscurity. The arrangement given here for "Swanee River", which is very traditional sounding, is defined in large part by the unique rhythmic flow given by the use of compound meter. "To The Shores Of Tripoli", the United States Marine Corps song, is the first of four American armed services anthems included in this volume. It is given here in a brass band style arrangement.

"Pomp And Circumstance" has long been an integral part of American educational graduation ceremonies. The arrangement given here is faithful to the original, and is therefore likely to recall fond memories for graduates of all ages. By contrast, the arrangement for "Johnny Has Gone For A Soldier", an 18th century folk song, is more formal and more somber than is normally the case. "Oh, Susanna", another Stephen Foster song, figured prominently in the early development of the country music tradition in America. This is reflected in the arrangement for that song, which has a bluegrass flavor. The tempo has purposely been slowed so as to make this delightful piece of music more accessible for beginners. "The Caissons Go Rolling Along", the United States Army song, is given in a brass band style arrangement characterized by the frequent rhythmic unison of the top three parts. "The Navy Hymn" is presented in an arrangement which would be equally well suited to a men's choral ensemble, which is the manner in which this hauntingly beautiful song is normally performed.

"Home On The Range", one of the best known American cowboy songs, is given here in a flowing arrangement distinguished by a rhythmically active counter melody in the A1 part. The arrangement for "My Bonnie", a tune which dates back to the heyday of American barbershop style music around the turn on the 20th century, is well suited to guitar ensemble, but could just as easily be performed by a barbershop quartet. "When Johnny Comes Marching Home", a very popular song during the American Civil War (1861-1865), is given here in an unusually somber arrangement. This interpretation is suggested by the song's lyrics and by the minor key, which together express some doubt over whether Johnny actually will come marching home (and in far too many cases, sadly, he did not). No such interpretation is possible, however, for "Dixie", another popular Civil War era song. The very nature of this tune's melody and lyrics demand an interpretation similar to the one given here - lively, upbeat, and engaging. The mood changes considerably with "Annie Laurie", a lovely Scottish ballad given in a choral style arrangement marked by the uncommon rhythmic unison of all the parts throughout. The inclusion of this song in the anthology is reflective of the fact that, in the early development of the American folk music tradition, frequent use was made of Gaelic and British folk music.

The American national anthem ("The Star Spangled Banner") needs no introduction here, except possibly to say that it is about as hard to play as it is to sing. The arrangement given here is highlighted by the passages in which all the parts sound in unison, which has a very striking effect. "Camptown Races", the third and last Stephen Foster song included in this volume, has been well known to American country and bluegrass pickers for many generations. The arrangement given here is a little more flowing and a little less bouncy than usual, which lends an interesting interpretation to this most enjoyable piece of music. "Daisy Bell", another barbershop era favorite, was re-popularized around 1970 by virtue of its inclusion in the soundtrack for the breakthrough movie "2001 : A Space Odyssey". The style of the arrangement for this song is a cross between barbershop style and instrumental style. "The Wild Blue Yonder" is the United States Air Force song, and undoubtedly the most dramatic of the four service anthems included in this volume. This dramatic quality is preserved in the arrangement given here, the melody part for which requires a good measure of skill with a flatpick. The volume concludes with "The Colorado Trail", a quiet and somewhat sorrowful sounding cowboy song (curiously sorrowful sounding, in fact, since it is in a Major key). The simple arrangement for this piece is intended mainly to capture these qualities to the greatest extent possible.