Program Notes

Celebrating in Song 2019

"American Journeys"

Sources available upon request; email us through the Contact Page.

Afternoon on a Hill 

Maine-born poet Edna St Vincent Millay's poem 'Afternoon on a Hill', renowned for its quiet, contemplative tone, was set to music by Eric Barnum while he pursued his D.M.A. in Choral Conducting from the University of Washington. In describing this piece, Barnum states: “I wanted to capture both the delight and wonder at the unsurpassed beauty of nature and the deep and painful understanding of transience…that we are human. Together these come together to form a great emotion: Joy. This is primarily the reason for the minor 6th pervading the piece...  The poem also kept speaking to me of something dramatic that takes place after the experience if you allow it, an unraveling of some greater truth.” Again, it was Joy to which he was referring. Barnum captures that moment in the last fading notes he describes as “a notion of our fleeting ability to hold on to Joy. We have no power over it, it comes only sometimes, and with it come layers upon layers of meaning and substance to make one weep.”

Agnus Dei

The monumental choral piece by Samuel Barber, “Agnus Dei”, is better known in its original form as one of the most popular orchestral pieces of the 20th century, the “Adagio for Strings”. Barber composed the “Adagio” in 1936 (at age 26) and returned to the piece thirty-one years later to craft it again into the sacred choral piece you will hear today. This is not a comfortable “Agnus Dei”, but one that is constantly searching, with a melody that ascends as if to reach for some source of mercy and peace, while the shifting harmonies below seem to offer as much sorrow as solace.

Bring Me Little Water Sylvie 

Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, was an African-American folk and blues musician of the mid-twentieth century whose work influenced musicians within the American folk music movement such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Bob Dylan. The song “Bring Me Little Water, Sylvie” became a staple for Lead Belly, who used this song about his uncle Bob to share with Northern audiences the trials of field laborers in the rural South: “The man was in the field ploughin’. He called his wife, Sylvie, the first time and she didn’t hear him, so he called her again, a little louder. That second time, Sylvie heard him. She grab her bucket and fill it with cool water from the well and she went runnin’. Down through the field, the little bucket knockin’ against her legs and a little water spillin’ out on the cotton dress she wore. She holler back at him to let him know she comin.”

 

Cindy

 

Mack Wilberg, composer, arranger, and current director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, is also a very accomplished pianist. During his association with the University of Southern California, he collaborated with Morton Lauridsen (composer of “O Magnum Mysterium”, and summer resident on Waldron Island in the San Juans) on a piece commissioned for the centennial of the school, Lauridsen writing the challenging piano score to Midwinter Songs specifically with his talents in mind. While a professor of music at BYU, he was a member of the American Piano Quartet, for which he arranged many works, so it is no surprise that he included a four-hand piano accompaniment in his arrangement of the spirited folksong “Cindy”. We are fortunate to have two wonderfully able pianists in the Chorale, Stephanie Bethea and Dianne Ramsey, whose nimble fingers flying over the keys will leave you breathless, especially in the 'hoedown' section.

Esto les Digo

Kinley Lange, a composer and choral director for over 40 years, was founder and director of the former Austin ProChorus Ensemble, a chamber choir dedicated to the works of living composers, and studied with the world-renowned ethnomusicology institute at the University of Hawaii. This a cappella setting of a scriptural text (Matthew 18:19-20), sung in Spanish, is contemplative in nature with an ethereal quality of the music blending beautifully with the quiet surety of the text. Lange responds musically to the promise “...where two or three are gathered ...” in several spots where the sopranos begin a new section alone but are soon joined by two or three more sections until all our singers are once again gathered in the music.

 

Happy Together

 

Written by Gary Bonner and Alan Gordon in 1967, “Happy Together” was a hit for The Turtles, an American pop band from Los Angeles. This is a most unusual pop song, with elements that owe allegiance to many musical sources. The descending harmony is reminiscent of Spanish flamenco music, while the march-like lower voices contrast with syncopated melodies in just the same way that the steady beat and repeating strains of marches like John Phillip Sousa’s were joined to African- American syncopation in the creation of ragtime.

The Road Home

 

Commissioned by The Dale Warland Singers, Stephan Paulus wrote “The Road Home” as a choral arrangement of an old hymn “The Lone Wild Bird” asking friend and colleague Michael Browne to contribute new lyrics. The haunting melody, originally called “Prospect”, first appeared in The Southern Harmony Songbook of 1835. Like many songs in this tradition, “Prospect” is pentatonic, using only five notes in the scale. Paulus alludes to this in his notes on the piece: “Pentatonic scales have been extant for centuries and are prevalent in almost all musical cultures throughout the world. They are universal.” Of the text he continues, “Michael writes so eloquently about ‘returning’ and ‘coming home’ after being lost or wandering. Again, this is another universal theme, this a cappella choral piece evidence that often the most powerful and beautiful message is a simple one.” Paulus layers rich harmony under the basic pentatonic melody, offering gentle comfort with the enduring promise of a way home.

 

Rock Island Line

 

The experiences of those working and traveling by rail around the turn of the twentieth century added many new songs to the American folksong catalog. “Rock Island Line” is one example of these railroad-inspired songs. Written in the 1920s by Clarence Wilson, a worker on the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad, it was recorded a decade later by folklorist and musicologist John Lomax and Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly). One popular later version told of a train operator who smuggled pig iron through the toll gate by claiming all he had on board was livestock.  This current setting, by J. David Moore, combines lyrics from multiple renditions. Vocal percussion adds the mournful sounds of a lonely train - constant throb of the engine, steady rhythmic clicking of wheels, clatter of the cars, and a train whistle fading into the night.

 

Seven Bridges Road

 

 Inspired by a rural Alabama road, Georgia-born country music singer-songwriter Steve Young's “Seven Bridges Road” combines a captivating melody and lyrics laden with nostalgic imagery. Tonight's version, emulating Ian William's vocal arrangement (made famous by the American popular group Eagles), changes the meter from 3/4 to 4/4, while retaining the magical quality of Young's original. Journey with us; feel a hot dusty road beneath your feet and the warm humid air of a Southern summer night; breathe in the heavy sweet fragrance of magnolia and gardenia; hear the incessant chorus of crickets and tree frogs; see ancient live oaks festooned with Spanish moss and the enchanting dance of fireflies above the grass; delight in the gentle lullaby of southern stars.

 

Shenandoah

 

“Shenandoah”, a standard work song since the early 1800s, is generally attributed to Canadian and American fur trappers (voyageurs) traveling by canoe down the Missouri River. Heard by the 'flatboatmen' along the Missouri, “Shenandoah” was readily adapted by them as a work shanty to help establish a rhythm for repetitive tasks. Sailors took up the song as a capstan shanty and from there it made its way into the wider world on mighty clipper ships as a sea shanty. Passed on through the oral tradition, lyrics evolved as the song spread, usually based on some form of a 'lonely sailor/trapper falls in love with a beautiful maiden' theme or expressions of longing for home.

 

John and Alan Lomax describe the charm of this song: “The melody has the roll and surge and freedom of a tall ship sweeping along before a trade wind. The sonorous succession of long vowels and soft and liquid consonants blend perfectly with romantic air. The lines are a call from the homeland to the sailor wandering far out across the seas, a call not from a sweetheart, a house, or even a town, but from the land itself, its rivers and its familiar and loved hills.”

 

James Erb's beautiful a cappella setting, sung by such groups as Chanticleer and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, wistfully expresses this universal yearning for a place called 'Home'.

 

The Storm is Passing Over

 

Charles Tindley is considered one of the founding fathers of modern black gospel. In the early 1900s, as pastor of a church in Philadelphia, he wrote and published over 50 hymns. Often sung by him in the midst of a sermon, his simple melodies and heartfelt texts not only resonated with the congregation but went on to influence black gospel music for generations. Our arrangement by Barbara Baker repeats key musical phrases, delivering them jubilantly or in a whisper, conveying the drama and excitement in the triumphant text. In the words of African American composer Dr. Marvin Curtis, “This is music that tells a story about what it means to be free...”

Walk Out on the Water

 

Royal Canoe, based in Winnipeg, Canada has been described as “a band on a mission to construct inventive music, consistently pushing against the boundaries of pop music.”

 

'Walk Out on the Water', written in quasi-gospel style and incorporating elements of hip hop and rap, is a dynamic declaration of optimism and expectancy. Images of resilience and perseverance are interspersed with flashes of exuberant hallelujahs and interwoven with moments of uncertainty as a celebration of the complex journey to self-discovery. Bold assertions of confidence incorporate such singular phrases as ‘I'm not going under’ and ‘I'll grow my wings like a butterfly’. Throughout, the melody dances from voice to voice, darting with intricate syncopation among fragmentary rhythmic pulses and washes of sound. This catchy arrangement by Geung Kroeker-Lee, artistic director of Prairie Voices, has beckoned the Chorale on a journey into unknown and exciting new musical territory.

We Rise Again 

 

Leon Dubinsky, Canadian actor and composer from Nova Scotia, wrote this anthem of determination and hope during a time of economic hardship on Cape Breton Island. First performed for the stage musical The Rise and Follies of Cape Breton, its inspiring melody quickly became a staple at gatherings throughout Nova Scotia, rising to national attention when recorded by Canadian group The Rankin Family. Dubinsky describes “We Rise Again” as about “…the cycles of immigration, the economic insecurity of living in Cape Breton, the power of the ocean, the meaning of children, and the strength of home given to us by our families, our friends and our music”. This arrangement by Stephen Smith, choral conductor and arranger in Vancouver, BC, has been sung throughout Canada by the men's choir Chor Leoni.

 

When I'm Gone (Cups)

 

Written by A.P. Carter in 1931, “When I'm Gone” has taken a fascinating journey from the Appalachian mountains of Virginia to Universal Studios via a detour through England. The Carter Family was one of the earliest country groups in America and their pure, unadorned Southern harmony has influenced numerous folk, bluegrass and rock musicians from the 1930s to the present day. Fast forward 80 years and British band Lulu and the Lampshades adds a bluesy new section to the song while pairing it with quirky “cup” percussion. You’ll get to enjoy the Cup Game today as we are joined by Sedro-Woolley's Evergreen Elementary Eagles Children's Choir., who will demonstrate their cup-twirling skills. We’re using the version from the 2012 film Pitch Perfect 2, arranged for women's voices by Deke Sharon.

Woodsmoke and Oranges

 

A native of Thunder Bay, in northwestern Ontario, longtime folk musician and prolific songwriter Ian Tamlyn is well known in the Ontario folk festival circuit for his lyrical songs embedded in the places and people of Canada.

“Woodsmoke and Oranges”, set on the North Shore of Lake Superior, paints a compelling musical portrait of canoeing in the region Tamlyn calls ‘home’. The haunting melody and steady rhythm offer an unforgettable experience, bringing to life the sounds of lapping waves along the shore, the lonely cry of a loon, and the rhythm of a paddle in the water. Portrayed through vivid imagery, there is a sense of being 'called to a place', of belonging. Even those who have never seen the rugged Northern Shore will feel they have come home.

This Land is Your Land 

 

Woody Guthrie's iconic “This Land is Your Land” reflects sentiments of many songs he wrote while wandering across the American landscape during some of the most important times of the 20th century – the Depression, Dust Bowl, and World War Two. Through these songs and ballads, he shared what he saw and experienced of the struggles and hardships of the working man, saying, “I never sing nor play one single word or note that is not for the help of the working classes to know more, feel better, rise up, and to own and control this world that they have built.” John Steinbeck wrote, “Woody sings the songs of a people... There is nothing sweet about Woody, or the songs he sings. But there is something more important for those who still listen. There is the will of a people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call this the American spirit.”

 

In 1941, Woody spent time in the Pacific Northwest, writing songs for a documentary film project about the building of the Grand Coulee Dam. Enamored with the beauty of this region, he wrote “…The Pacific Northwest is one of my favorite spots in this world... (It) has got mineral mountains. It's got chemical deserts. It's got rough run canyons. It's got sawblade snowcaps. It's got ridges of nine kinds of brown, hills out of six colors of green, ridges five shades of shadows.”

Old Settler's Song (Acre of Clams)

 

The “Old Settler's Song", written around 1874 by Judge Francis Henry and sung to an early 19th century tune “Old Rosin the Beau”, is a Pacific Northwest folk song. It reflects the story of thousands of men who prospected for gold in California in the mid-1800s only to be disappointed. Many abandoned their equipment and headed north for Washington Territory in search of a better life. The song took on new life of its own decades later when entertainer, folksinger, restaurateur and radio-show singer Ivar Haglund used it as a theme song for his show. (Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie supposedly claimed to have taught him the song.) Later he used part of the last line of the chorus, “surrounded by acres of clams” as the name for his new restaurant on Seattle's Pier 54, ‘Ivar's Acres of Clams’, a longtime Seattle waterfront icon.

Site photos by John Yaeger - Yaeger, Inc.

Banner photos by Coizie Bettinger

Skagit Valley Chorale

P.O. Box 2976, Mount Vernon, WA

© 2019