January 30, 2014
There has never been a moment when the classical, written tradition of European art music was not interacting with the orally-transmitted, often non-professionally-produced music that we have learned to call “folk music.” Sure, there are some classical styles that are so abstract that there’s no connection. But those exist side by side with written music that is openly indebted to folk music. But in memory of the late Pete Seeger, here’s a playlist that explores the back-and-forth.
1. “I Am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” American trad. American Favorite Ballads, Pete Seeger.
One of the most classic, and oft-classicized, folksongs from Appalachia. (It gets some competition from “Shenandoah.”)
2. “Go From My Window,” English trad. English Folk Songs and Lute Songs, Andreas Scholl, countertenor.
This song was used, suggestively, by Shakespeare in Ophelia’s mad scene, in Hamlet. It is still well-known and often sung.
3. “Go From My Window,” variations by John Dowland. Renaissance Favorites, David Russell, guitar.
At roughly the same time as Shakespeare, lutenist John Dowland wrote these compact, yet emotionally wide-ranging variations.
4. “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues,” anonymous, American Industrial Ballads, Pete Seeger.
Winnsboro Cotton Mill is located in South Carolina, and the song may have been written by a worker in the mill in the 1920s.
5. “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues,” by Frederic Rzewski. Blue, James Lent, piano.
Pianist-composer Frederic Rzewski’s expansion of the simple blues tune might suggest the noisy factory floor, with its incessantly moving machinery. Gradually, the original complaint against the mill-owner is added in.
6. “English Bulls, or, The Irishman in London,” trad., arr. Beethoven. Complete Beethoven Edition, Vol. 17, John Mark Ainsley, tenor.
Both Beethoven and Haydn made a few “gulden” (bucks) by writing folksong arrangements for English publishers. Some are sophisticated; all are fun.
7. Chorale from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Darling Corey and Goofing-Off Suite, Pete Seeger.
A reminder that classics can go folk. Though this tune is getting a comic treatment here, it’s now a part of all kinds of musical traditions from church hymnals on to community sings.
8. “Loosin Yelav” (The Moon Emerged), Armenian trad. Arr. By Luciano Berio: Recital 1 for Cathy, Cathy Berberian, soprano; Juilliard Ensemble, Luciano Berio, cond.
Soprano Cathy Berberian is particularly effective in this folk song, arranged, with a tiny bit of modernist abstraction, by her composer husband.
9. “Trojky” from Leoš Janáček's Moravian Dances, Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra.
Moravia is the district in the east of the Czech Republic. Janáček was responding to an interest in folk music from the outer edges of the then-Austrian Empire, which was exploited by most of his fellow-Czech composers.
10. “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” Israeli trad. The Weavers Legacy, The Weavers.
This is the B-side of the folk-group’s hit cover of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene,” from 1950, at the height of the group’s popularity. Lightly orchestrated, it served the same kind of interest as Janáček’s “trojky,” Israel being a brand-new country at the time.
11. “Brahms’s Lullaby” by Johannes Brahms. New Orleans OST Louis Armstrong, trumpet.
One of the famous jazz trumpeter’s sign-off pieces. There are only a few classical pieces that are so famous that the composer’s name is part of the common title.