Traditional American Songs II


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 second volume begins with "America The Beautiful", which could probably rightly be considered the second American national anthem. It is presented here in a somewhat Classical sounding arrangement which plays on the majestic character of this simple but very expressive melody. "She'll Be Comin' Round The Mountain", a long-time country favorite, typifies the exuberance and straightforwardness of early American music. The instrumental style arrangement for this song, despite being a little corny and trite sounding in places, fits the music and the lyrics quite well. "Motherless Child" is in the style of a 19th century Negro Spiritual, and is presented here in like style. This simple but moving song is illustrative of the highly emotional character of this music, a quality which, over time, was integrated into the American musical consciousness. "Danny Boy", given here in an appropriately sentimental-sounding arrangement, is a familiar Irish standard which is by no means a stranger to American ears. "Blow The Man Down" is a sea shanty, a type of folk song which was quite popular early on in American history, and which was re-popularized during the folk music movement of the 1950's and 1960's. Although this well known shanty is given here in an instrumental style guitar ensemble arrangement, this type of music, at least according to Disney, is better sung by a band of extravagantly-dressed and rough-edged marauder-types.

"Skip To My Lou" is an old-time favorite which was quite well known to many generations of Americans. The arrangement for this lively tune is fairly intricate and makes dramatic use of damped notes. "You're A Grand Old Flag", another George M. Cohan song, is one of the most challenging arrangements contained in this volume. Apart from the brisk tempo, which of course figures into the difficulty level, the melody requires appreciable fretting and flatpicking skill, and the three harmony parts consist mainly of damped notes. "Scarborough Fair" is a lovely centuries-old English folk song which has long been known and admired in America. The arrangement for this piece is in a Classical style suggestive of Renaissance or Elizabethan music. "Auld Lang Syne", which like "Annie Laurie" is of Scottish origin, is a universally known American New Year's Eve song (curiously, however, hardly anyone seems to know the words). The arrangement is in a straightforward style which captures some of the vocal harmonies frequently used in the "performance" of this song by enthusiastic and creative celebrants (whose enthusiasm and creativity are rarely dampened by the fact that they haven't a clue what the words are). "The Daring Young Man On The Flying Trapeze", one of Popeye's favorite songs, is given in an arrangement characterized by the familiar "oom - pa - pah" sound of waltz music. This is a reasonably good fit, since this style of music is frequently associated, at least in America, with the circus. The lyrics to this light-hearted tune, which dates from about the turn of the 20th century, are a humorous lament by a young man whose fiancee's heart has been stolen by a handsome trapeze artist of questionable moral character.

"God Bless America" is another important example of Broadway's contribution to America's musical heritage. The arrangement for this immensely popular tune features a duet between the top two parts, and an interesting drum-like rhythmic effect in the lower interior part. "Froggy Went A-Courtin'" is a farcical romp which typifies the "twinkle in the eye" quality of a great many early American folk and popular tunes. This is one of the most technically demanding pieces in the anthology, since it requires rapid sequences of notes in the melody, and alternating legato and damped passages in the three harmony parts. "La Bamba" is an old Mexican folk song which was already reasonably well known in the American southwest when it was more widely popularized by rock and roll star Richie Valens around 1960. The five part arrangement for this lively number is without doubt one of the most fun to play in the entire Guitar Ensemble Core Catalog. The arrangement consists of a melody, damped rhythms in the two upper interior parts, a counter melody in the lower interior part, and a very active bass line. "John Riley" is an 18th century English ballad which has long enjoyed favor in American folk music circles. In the arrangement given here, the music for this heroic tale of undying love has somewhat of a Medieval or early Renaissance feel about it. "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", probably the best known of the early Spirituals, is given in a simple arrangement which relies heavily on the beautiful changes of harmony that accompany this profound and deeply moving song.

"Morning Has Broken" was a fixture in American hymnals for several generations before it was more widely popularized by recording artist Cat Stevens. Stevens, a well known acoustic guitarist/singer/songwriter, was one of the leading figures in the explosion of interest in acoustic guitar music which occurred during the 1960's and 1970's. In the arrangement for this tune, which is highlighted by a legato bass line, the two interior parts play a strictly supportive role. In the arrangement for "The Streets Of Laredo", a famous cowboy lament, the three harmony parts have been fashioned so as to duplicate the sound of a simple fingerstyle rhythm guitar accompaniment. "The Band Played On", a very popular tune around the turn of the 20th century, is given, appropriately enough, in a brass band style arrangement. "Toyland", from the classic movie musical "Babes In Toyland" (around 1940), was a very popular song of the day, and is illustrative of the fact that memorable music from films is an important part of the American musical landscape. This song, the lyric for which expresses a slightly melancholy longing for the simple pleasures of childhood, is arranged in a style which likewise enjoyed great popularity around the middle of the 20th century. The anthology concludes with "Little Brown Jug", an anything-but melancholy tribute to the more adult (and more dubious) pleasures of rye and rum. This song was wildly popular during America's frontier days, and remains to this day a well known bluegrass favorite. The arrangement given here, which makes use of numerous damped notes and moves along at a lively pace, amply demonstrates the effectiveness of the guitar ensemble format in interpreting music of this style.