America has been home
to many of the great songsmiths throughout
its history. Long before the birth of
either jazz or rock & roll there
were Americans creating a distinctly
American sound. This collection of songs,
performed by Marilyn Horne (b. 1934),
is largely taken from the pre-jazz era.
Included are the works of Stephen Foster,
the first great American songwriter,
as well as several Spirituals and very
early Broadway songs.
tend to be uncomplicated which helps
to highlight the simple beauty of the
melodies. "Jeanie with the light
brown hair", for instance, has
Ms. Horne accompanied only by harp.
On most of the album the chamber orchestra
and piano offer solid support to the
vocals. The brass are used largely for
fanfares and interludes. The chorus
is seldom given the lead, though they
perform commendably when given opportunity.
Ms. Horne’s performances
on the majority of these songs are very
well done. Her voice is a powerful force,
and though many of these works are normally
considered children’s songs today, she
takes the performance of them very seriously.
However her affected accent for the
Spirituals, though appropriate to performance,
sounds falsified. "Sometimes I
feel like a motherless child" is
one of the most moving works in American
musical literature, but her insistence
on a phony accent hurts the performance
markedly. It is even more evident when
compared to the chorus, who do not change
their enunciation to match hers. Also
among the disappointments on the album
is the song "Billy Boy", which
is simply not arranged well. Either
her voice is perhaps too heavy for the
arrangement or she is over-singing.
Regardless of the reason, the exclusion
of this particular track would improve
the overall album.
Conversely her performance
of "Shenandoah" is as good
as any put on record. The arranging
for chorus done by Carl Davis is consistently
good and here outstanding. Here Ms.
Horne truly shines. She sounds both
wistful and awed by the beauty of the
scenes that the song encapsulates. Similarly
her "Go ‘way from my window"
is a truly moving performance.
When performing the
patriotic songs, Ms. Horne does a commendable
job of avoiding sounding trite or over
the top. Songs like "You’re a grand
old flag", "When Johnny comes
marching home", "God Bless
America", or the "Battle Hymn
of the Republic" are often performed
either with a knowing cheekiness or
as a sort of protection against criticism.
They commonly might be added to an album
simply to make an attempt at grabbing
the heart of an American and making
it swell with pride by default. As a
result, the pieces are seldom given
much care. This is certainly not the
case here: the arrangements are well
done and the performances are again
solid. No matter your opinion of America,
it is evident that when performed well
these songs are still moving as pieces
the most outstanding of the works on
this album is the Aaron Copland collection
Five Songs from ‘Old American Songs’.
The five songs in question are "Simple
"Long time ago", "I bought
me a cat" and "At the river".
The music sounds like something directly
out of his Billy the Kid orchestral
suite or Rodeo ballet. The orchestra
stands in fine form, and Ms. Horne’s
vocal talents are put on their full
display. There is naught to complain
about here. These 12 minutes make the
entire album by themselves.
Unfortunately the insert
leaves much to be desired. There are
no publishing dates, composer dates,
or historical notes to contextualize
the works. Inexplicably, even the name
of Aaron Copland is abbreviated. He
is listed only as Copland, and mentioned
in passing in the notes when quoting
a selection from Simple Gifts.
Perhaps that could be forgiven because
of Copland’s renown; less understandable
is the similar treatment given to Alfred
Bryan and Al Piantadosi. That is a songwriting
team deserving at least a mention in
the notes for the aid of the listener.
Each man had dozens of hits, including
many of the most popular tunes during
the First World War. "I didn’t
raise my boy to be a soldier" was
written in 1915 on the verge of America’s
committing troops as a protest song.
The song gained such notoriety that
Teddy Roosevelt himself parodied it,
calling for another song to accompany
the original called "I didn’t raise
my girl to be a mother" containing
the lyrics that the place for women
who opposed war was "in China —
or by preference in a harem — and not
in the United States."
It seems that at least someone
inclined to open the packaging should
learn that much.
Furthermore, the discussion
of Marilyn Horne’s career is perfunctory
at best. It seems that the writer for
the liner notes is more interested in
discussing the ironies surrounding Stephen
Foster’s career than in giving any information
to enhance the listening experience
or understanding of the music. Luckily
the production and recording were given
the meticulous care that was given the
performance. There is nothing that could
be considered distracting technically,
and that is truly as good as production
In summation, there
is much to commend this album. There
are a few moments where the arranging
or performances are merely adequate.
The majority of the album is better
than average, with many renditions being
exemplary. While there are certainly
a large number of collections of American
songs that have been produced over time,
this one is certainly better than average.
It is worth the time to listen, hopefully
to rediscover an appreciation for this