American Songs

Author: 
Edward Seckerson

American Songs

  • He's gone away
  • (The) Leather-winged bat
  • Barb'ry Allen
  • To say before going to sleep
  • White in the moon
  • Old American Songs Set 2, The little horses (coll. Lomax)
  • Old American Songs Set 2, Zion's walls (attrib. McCarry)
  • Old American Songs Set 2, At the river (Lowry, 1865)
  • Old American Songs Set 2, Ching-a-ring (1830s)
  • In the fields
  • Twentieth century
  • Heart! we will forget him!
  • (3) Songs, No. 3, Bessie Bobtail (wds. Stephens)
  • (3) Songs, No. 1, Rain has fallen
  • (3) Songs, No. 2, Sleep now
  • (3) Songs, No. 3, I hear an army
  • (4) Songs, No. 3, Sure on this shining night (wds. Agee)
  • Winter Song
  • (A) Letter
  • (The) Astronomers
  • Tis Winter now
  • Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day
  • Make me an instrument of Thy peace
  • Black is the color of my true love's hair
  • Fee Simple
  • Soldier, Soldier
  • Richard Cory
  • My native land
  • (The) Things our fathers loved
  • Memories

The history of the Land of the Free can be traced in song. Long before they signed the Declaration of Independence, long before Stephen Foster embraced the nation with his simple home-truths, and long after the American parlour song passed beyond the picket fence to the great outdoors yonder, there were the hymns, the folk ditties, the revivalist chants, the fireside fondants, the back-porch lullabies. And what was passing fancy became Art.
Jennifer Larmore has chosen with care. It feels like a personal choice, sung with personal concern. Whether it’s recast traditional or homegrown original or something altogether loftier, this young woman from Atlanta, Georgia, seems to know where it’s coming from. She’s not afraid to override the songs a little, pushing the interest and intensity to the point where maybe it becomes a little too public. But American song is nothing if not outspoken and this is a full, ripe, outspoken voice. Black is the color of my true love’s hair gives you the measure of it – a handsome song, handsomely recast (John Jacob Niles), the low-lying phrases of its glorious melody just as dark as dark can be. Occasionally the characterization slips big and wide-eyed into the Bryn Terfel school of overstated, over-eager and over here. Barber’s Bessie Bobtail is a case in point. But then again you wouldn’t want to be without the broadness of her Southern Belle in Robert Abramson’s setting of Soldier, Soldier where the punchline is a real glint in her eye from the very start.
For the rest, the unfamilar are among the richest pickings. Jake Heggie (born in 1961 and living in San Francisco) has the first word with his setting of a traditional text He’s gone away, and the directness of it is at once disarming. It’s impossible to date and yet there is something long-standing, venerable about it – as if the same song has been sung and sung again, from generation to generation, and lost none of its immediacy. Four other Heggie songs are offered, and in each case it’s amazing how he assumes the identity of his texts, how he is literally, for instance, in harmony with A. E. Houseman’s White in the moon. Vaughan Williams should be so English. I also like Lee Hoiby’s work, not least his impassioned Wilfred Owen setting Winter Song and Emily Dickinson’s A letter – chronicle of a wise child’s growing pains – which is as shy, sly and wry (and almost as reluctantly well-behaved) as its deliciously knowing text.
But ultimately, there is Samuel Barber, up there where he belongs with the very best that song – any song – has to offer. His two James Joyce settings, I hear an army and Rain has fallen are stunning, the former vivid, vehement, the latter defined by an inconsolable and very particular melancholy, culminating in a furious piano cadenza that says more about frustration and despair than even Joyce’s text. Antoine Palloc plays it here with an awareness and strength of purpose that mark out his contributions throughout the disc. And, of course, there is Sure on this shining night – as fine a song about wonder and the infinite as I know. James Agee’s text is one of nine reproduced in the beautifully illustrated booklet. Would it have been such a tall order to reproduce all 30 texts? Good as Larmore’s diction is, we do need them. '

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