A Tour of American Popular Song Baritone Thomas Hampson tells Scott Simon about the Library of Congress "Song of America" tour. With stops in 12 cities, it features music manuscripts by Aaron Copland and Steven Foster, among others, and concerts by Hampson.
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A Tour of American Popular Song

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A Tour of American Popular Song

A Tour of American Popular Song

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We sat down with Mr. Hampson recently at the Library of Congress, in front of a low table that held some remarkable old music scores, yellowed and weathered with age. As an opera singer, Mr. Hampson performs in Italian, German and French, as well as English, but he is a passionate advocate of American music. In some ways his current tour began in 1983 when he happened upon a music store in Albuquerque, New Mexico that had a going out of business sale. He saw three filing cabinets there filled with sheet music, most of it American songs that hadn't been heard for years.

THOMAS HAMPSON: There were first editions of this, and there were things that I had never seen of that. And so I'm pawing through here, it was sort of a dollar for this and 50 cents for that. And finally I said, Well, you know, how about I just take the whole lot? Would you be happy with a hundred dollars? So fortunately I had enough room in my car to get it all the way back to Santa Fe and then pay the shipping freight. I mean, it was crazy.

SIMON: And is there a thrill in, in a sense, the hunt, the discovery of a song you hadn't heard of before?

HAMPSON: Well, absolutely. I mean finding music that's referred to, and if you read compendiums or encyclopedias or you start just brainstorming about poets, you know, that, I don't know who, you know, Langston Hughes has been set to music. Well, how often has he been set to music? And so poets and composers have been saying so much about what it is to be in America, regardless of where you came from, or be born in America, or be an artist in America. You don't have much writing from Schubert about being Viennese.

SIMON: What are some of the music that we have in here?

HAMPSON: Here's a first edition, it looks like, of Henry Burleigh, who was a wonderful baritone, a wonderful composer and arranger as well, and a student slash friend of Dvorzhak. Mostly Burleigh is known for his arrangements of spirituals, but he wrote some really fantastic and beautiful songs. He actually wrote, this on Walt Whitman's text, which is a particularly poignant and wonderful song, Ethiopia Saluting the Colors, about a slave saluting, literally saluting the Army as it's marching on the way under dotty Sherman, is the quote from Whitman, you know, down that fateful march.


SIMON: Ethiopia was a, in those days it was a kind of code word for African- American.

HAMPSON: Without question. Probably not lost in this fact, I get a little, I get a little careful about, you know, autobiographical reasons why things get created. But in fact Burleigh's grandmother was a slave. And I can imagine that this poem just rang an amazingly strong echo of his family, of his roots, of his own freedom, of his own recognition of a new life in this country.


HAMPSON: Music is a language in and of itself. Inevitably, in a song, you're creating really a new art form, because it's the musical language and it's the poetic language. And when you marry the two, it is no longer the poem, nor is it an isolated musical event. It becomes events in and of itself. That's why, I mean the question is it more important, the words and the music? The only answer is yes.

SIMON: Let me ask you about this piece of music in front of us.

HAMPSON: I don't know what it is.

SIMON: Oh. This is Manuscript Music Book Number 8, Songs and...

HAMPSON: Is this Eleanor's? Oh, this is Eleanor Remick Warren, one of the most perfect examples of democratic creativity, chapters of American creativity in this country, a beautiful woman in every way, very gifted, and a wonderful pianist. This is a workbook.

SIMON: Oh my word. And you see her notations in pencil?

HAMPSON: Oh, absolutely. Let me see if I can see. Do You Fear the Wind. I have seen this in the Hamlin Garland. She was, it was interesting, her choice of texts were very much about the psychology or the emotion that she wanted to articulate, more than being preoccupied with great poets. And very often you have to go back to sort of the Who's Who of who you never knew.

SIMON: Yeah.

HAMPSON: To find out who that was.

SIMON: Can you read any of this?

HAMPSON: Oh sure.

SIMON: And note the tune?

HAMPSON: Do you fear the force, the face of the wind, the slash of the rain? Ya da da di da da. Oh, this is a chorus piece. Look at that. Tenor 1, Tenor 2, B-1, B-1-2. It's a four-four rhythm but it's got a driving triplets. See? Ya da da da ta, ya ta la da, ya ta la ta. Somewhat dissonant, not terribly. The fear, the force, the force of the wind, the slash of the rain? The slash of the rain? Da da da ta, Ya ta la da. The slash of the rain? Ya da da da ta ba ba. Yeah, this would be quite fun to listen to.

SIMON: Now, (unintelligible) I wanted to ask you about. Danny Deever.


SIMON: I hear tell that this was President Theodore Roosevelt's favorite song.

HAMPSON: David Bispham was really the father of contemporary recital. And he was extremely famous and was loved for his singing songs. And Theodore Roosevelt befriended him and liked him very much. And reportedly every time Bispham was at the White House, Oh, sing me that Danny Deever thing.


SIMON: A Kipling poem, right?

HAMPSON: It's a Kipling poem. It's the story of a deserter.

SIMON: Yeah.

HAMPSON: Well, actually it's not really a deserter. It's a sort of ambiguous statement about, He shot a comrade sleeping. You must look him in the face. I mean, the fact that, I guess the grievous crime was the shooting in the back.

SIMON: Uh-huh.

HAMPSON: More than the actual death.

SIMON: What do you try and do in these performances?


SIMON: I was hoping you'd...

HAMPSON: In tune. And correctly. As often as possible.


HAMPSON: We need to know our own history. We need to know where we come from so that we can enjoy what it is that we have and we can be ready for something we don't have any clue about in the future. It's just, it's not a criticism I offer here. It's simply an observation. It's very easy in this fast world that we live in, in this information society, to become complacent to our culture.

SIMON: We're looking at a copy of the sheet music of Beautiful Dreamer.


SIMON: Da da da da da.

HAMPSON: Well done. That's it. Steven Foster wrote a lot of wonderful songs. And he kind of became, by default, the trunk of a very large tree that has become American music, and the idea of American music and even American song. Beautiful Dreamer was one of the last songs he wrote, one of the most beautiful, and one of the most iconic of all of his repertoire. He had a very sad life, and he died a very depressed man. And he sold a great deal of his library, at some point later in his life, all of the copyright, for about $250.


SIMON: Is it hard to, not hard, but is it a challenge to do a recital that does right by scholarship, and does right by music?

HAMPSON: But it's all about human spirit. It's all about our souls. Music requires mind and heart. And song, you know, is I think probably the most intimate of that.

SIMON: Thank you, Mr. Hampson.

HAMPSON: Thank you very much.


SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon

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