I have always loved this melody, and in particular this version by superstar baritone Bryn Terfel. “Oh Shenandoah” (also called simply “Shenandoah” or “Across the Wide Missouri”) is a traditional American folk song dating to the early 19th century. The song is thought to have originated with Canadian and American voyagers or fur traders traveling down the Missouri River in canoes, but has developed several different sets of lyrics. Some lyrics refer to the American Indian chief Shenandoah and a canoe-going trader who wants to marry his daughter. By the mid 1800s versions of the song had become a sea shanty heard or sung by sailors in various parts of the world.
When I was asked to write a blog about my favorite vocal pieces I had some doubts: Am I a good story teller? Is my English good enough to tell it the way I’d like? How do I choose just four pieces out of so many favorites? Actually, what are the criteria anyway … ?
The only certain thing was—if I do it, I will start with a Russian folk song. Because folk songs are the reservoir of Russian vocal treasure and because they are personal to me. My first steps into the world of music and singing were made with folk songs.
I grew up with a grandmother who was always singing: while doing housework, picking
mushrooms and berries in the woods, taking a rest… From her I heard most of them: happy and sad songs, songs for work and holidays, wedding songs, funeral ones, funny and joking ones. One can express anything and everything with a song. A folk song is like a prayer, a meditation. It clears one’s soul and brings comfort to one’s heart.
For this blog I’ve picked out the Russian folk song “Under Willow”. Most folk songs are anonymous, but the names of the writers of some are known. The lyrics for this song belong to Nikolay Veryovkin, the officer of Nevsky Infantry. He fought in the Russian-Persian War of 1826-1828, the Russian-Turkish War of 1828-1829 and the Polish Campaign of 1830-1831. The song pictures a wounded Russian warrior lying under the willow, watching a black raven flying over his head. In Slavonic mentality and folklore black raven is a prophetic bird that lives up to 300 years, keeps secrets, leads to hidden treasures, predicts death. In songs this ominous bird often flies over battlefield and then brings families news of their son’s or husband’s death.
The dying warrior asks the raven to fly to his motherland and tell his father, mother and wife that they shouldn’t expect him to return.
Under the green willow
The wounded cossack was lying
Oy du, under the green one
The wounded cossack was lying.
A raven bird over him was flying,
Began croaking loudly.
Ay du, raven wouldn’t fly
Hadn’t he smelled a good bite.
Black raven, don’t croak over my head,
I am still a cossack alive.
You’d better fly to my father’s and mother’s home,
Give the kerchief soaked in my blood
To my young and lovely wife.
Tell them, raven, that I’d got married
To another girl.
That I’ve found a bride
In the open field, across the river.
Was our wedding quiet, subdued,
Under the willow bush,
Oy du, quiet, subdued
Under the willow bush…
The matchmaker was the saber sharp,
The best man was bayonet of damask steel.
Oy du, saber sharp
And the bayonet was the best man.
A swift bullet married us fast
And motherland wed us.
Oy du, swift bullet
and motherland us wed.
I chose this song because it resembles the northern folk songs from the region where I was born and raised—Komi Republic. Northern songs are different from other regions; they inherited the melodies and the moods of the nations that lived in those parts of Russia. They reflect the northern landscape—wild nature, a lot of snow, rivers and swamps. And they resemble, more then other types of Russian songs, a prayer or a meditation.
In conclusion, I’d like to introduce the performer. The soloist is Pelageya, a Russian singer who debuted on stage as a little girl. She remains one of the public’s favorites. She sings Russian folk songs, romances and pop songs. At 13, after winning a number of vocal competitions, she received an invitation from the great Russian cellist, outstanding musician and public figure Mstislav Rostropovich to perform at the Evian Music Festival, alongside with Evgeny Kissin, Ravi Shankar, Paata Burchuladze, B.B. King. Galina Vishnevskaya, in her French Press interview, called Pelageya “the future of the opera world”. I’m sure the singer would have been a great success, had she chosen opera. But I’m also happy for the choice she has made. Thanks to her arrangements, folk songs acquire new, sometimes unexpected sounds, and become hits with young audiences, ensuring this genre continues to thrive.
Arguably the most well known song ever, Danny Boy has swiftly become a very favorite of mine since I became intimately acquainted with it a few seasons ago. I mentioned in a previous post that pianist Peter Dugan and I will be launching our album A Silent Night: A WWI Memorial in Song this year. When we were first thinking of concepts for how to organize the program, we knew we wanted it to end with something memorable, powerful and original (to a degree). Peter came to me with his arrangement of “Danny Boy”, which I truly feel is the best piano-vocal version out there. Just to back up that claim, we have been asked many times if the arrangement is available for purchase. We have even been asked by pianist Julius Drake for a copy as well—don’t worry a copy is on its way soon!
Instead of going too far into the depth of the story and the origin of the song. I feel like this one really speaks for itself, and this arrangement gets right to the heart of what the song is all about.
I am in a dilemma. I am doing a program about the British Isles at Juilliard on January 11. Later on in the year, I am doing a concert called Four Islands at Caramoor and Merkin Hall on March 12 and 14. The four islands in question are Madagascar, Cuba, Manhattan—and Ireland. So this beautiful Irish piece, Sir Granville Bantock’s “Song to the Seals,” will certainly be on one of them. I just have to decide where best to place it. This is the kind of thing that can keep me awake at night.
“Song to the Seals” is one of those simple tunes that can create a magical aura. Tenor Robert (“Bobby”) White turned me on to it and gave me the music. The first time I programmed it was just after Lorraine Hunt Lieberson died in 2006. It tells the story of a woman who sings with so much power and feeling that all the creatures of the ocean gather around to hear her. Lorraine was that kind of musical enchantress too, casting spell after spell with her voice.
When I collaborated with her in the 1990s, we would sometimes lock horns about musical interpretation. I always lost, and my ego would take a hit. But the last time I worked with her—at Caramoor in 2005—I finally realized the simple truth: this woman is a maga, a sorceress. And her spell must be followed to the letter, or the magic will not happen. You want time to stop, you want an unforgettable musical event? Do it her way. I finally had the wit and the maturity to check my ego at the door and take orders from her in a state of Zen-calm. A ritardando here, with an a tempo on the second half of the third beat of the fourth bar? Check. Poco accelerando here, but no crescendo till the end of the second system? Check. I called it the “Eye of Newt” Law, named after the witches casting their spell in “Macbeth”: “Eye of newt, and toe of frog, wool of bat, and tongue of dog…” Mess up one ingredient, and you have a real mess on your hands.
Lorraine would have loved “Song to the Seals.” She could make difficult modern scores sound tuneful, she could plumb the depths of Bach. But she also cherished things that are simple and true. Whenever I perform this song, it is for Lorraine.
Here is John McCormack in a classic recording made when he was 51 years old.
This song is an old one, even by the standards of classical art song. “Pretty Saro” is a folk ballad first notated in England the early 1700’s, though, as is the way with these things, no one knows how long it had been sung before that. After the 18th century it was lost for a time, only to be rediscovered in Appalachia in the early 20th century, with distinctly American changes to the lyrics. “Pretty Saro” is exactly the kind of gem that modern, digital culture knows about thanks to the dedication of folk song archivists like Cecil Sharp and Alan Lomax, who would go into the field (sometimes literally) to record folk songs. This is the original meaning of folk music: not the songs of songwriters in the folk style, like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, or even their forebear, the great Woody Guthrie, but songs with unknown writers, passed down within families and communities for tens or hundreds of generations. After its long, transatlantic history, “Pretty Saro” has emerged from obscurity and been recorded by the likes of Bob Dylan, Doc Watson, and Judy Collins, as well as a personal favorite artist and champion of folk song in the truest sense, Sam Amidon.
“Pretty Saro” tells the story of an immigrant who, having failed to win the hand of his beloved in part because of his economic prospects, has decided to leave the region and try his luck somewhere else. There are five verses. The first three concern themselves with telling the story– when our narrator arrived in the country, how things have gone for him since, his unrequited love, and his plans to move along. Rhetorically speaking, these are simple verses, just how one might expect an uneducated laborer to express himself, especially in a folk song.
In the final two verses, things change. The language takes a turn for the allegorical, transcending the exposition of the previous text and taking us somewhere we wouldn’t expect our narrator to lead:
“If I were a poet, and could write a fine hand / I would write my love a letter that she might understand / and send it over water / when the islands overflow / and dream of pretty Saro wherever I go.”
What has previously been indicative language switches to the subjunctive, as our narrator imagines a different life for himself, a different world. Considering that this song was collected in the mountains of Western North Carolina, the idea of sending a letter over water while islands are flooding has a surreal, almost biblical (perhaps prescient) quality to it. The final verse goes a step further:
“If I were a little dove / had wings and could fly / to my true lover’s window / this night I’d draw nigh / in her lily-white arms / all night I would lay / and look to the window for the dawning of the day.”
Now we have our narrator, almost certainly a man of little education, someone who owns no land and works that of others in order to survive, unschooled in poetry, perhaps a bit rough-and-tumble, talking about transforming himself into a little dove so that he might be held by his sleeping lover. This change in language would be a shocking twist in an art song, where it would be a calculated narrative device to elicit a response in the listener, most likely accompanied by changes in the tonal and rhythmic sound world. In a folk song, though, where the musical structure is unchanged from verse to verse, the change in tone is somehow more striking. No one decided to use this sophisticated change in language as an artifice to move the listener – rather, it must have been the only way for the narrator to honestly express himself and his loss. Even after listening many dozens of times, it continues to shock me.
Furthermore, I find it unthinkable that modern blue-collar men would express their heartbreak in such, unguarded, sensitive language as this. Can you imagine a migrant worker today, working by day in the oil fields of the Dakotas, singing at a bar, wishing aloud to his friends that he might be transformed into a little dove, with no qualifying statements about his accomplishments, his masculine qualities, no trace of bitterness? I simply can’t. In this way, a centuries-old folk song becomes an interesting document in the history of North American gender identity, telling us about who we were once and, by contrast, who we have become.
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