23.06.2019 Author: Caleb Maupin

Aaron Copland in 2019: Music for a Troubled America


The folk songs carefully arranged by an American composer in 1950, contains subtle lessons amid the political turmoil of 2019.

On June 17th in St. John’s Church in New York City, tenor Everett Suttle gave a vocal performance accompanied by pianist Daniel Kirk Foster. The Greenwich Village event was sponsored by the Foundation for the Revival of Classical Culture. The streets outside were decked out with rainbow flags in anticipation of the annual “pride weekend”, which generally shuts down the area with parades and festivities celebrating the political advances of the LGBTQ community.

After an opening selection of British music and a brief intermission, Suttle moved into Set 1 and Set 2 of Aaron Copland’s Old American Songs arranged and published in 1952.

The audience comprised of many young people from different national and ethnic backgrounds, who sat in the small seating area of the church. No doubt at least a few of them were supporters of Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the new call for “Democratic Socialism” in American politics. Whether they knew it or not, as they face a troubling political atmosphere, the composer of the music shared many similar hopes and fears in his time.

 What is a Sympathizer?

Aaron Copland’s music is known for its ‘Americanness.’ The music from his ballets Billy The Kid (1938) and Rodeo (1942) have been used in a number of cowboy movies. However, Copland’s background is a far cry from what one would expect of a man who composed what essentially became the soundtrack for many Hollywood westerns.

In November of 2000, 100 years after his birth NPR’s Elizabeth Blair reported on the composer: “Copland’s music has become a symbol of Americana, but some details about his life remain little known. Copland was Jewish, homosexual, and often identified with the Communist Party. Some believe these affiliations made his music all the richer.”

Copland was the child of Lithuanian and Russian immigrants in Brooklyn. Around the time he published his two sets of “Old American Songs” in 1950, he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and interrogated by Joe McCarthy about his ties to the Communist Party USA. When asked in a closed hearing if he was a communist sympathizer, Copland sassily asked Senator McCarthy, “What’s a sympathizer?”

Copland was never a full member of the Communist Party USA. Many speculate that this was due to his well-known homosexuality, which the communists labeled as “bourgeois decadence.” Regardless, in the 1930s Copland signed almost every petition the Party circulated and performed his music at many Popular Front and anti-fascist events. After the Second World War ended, communists became “public enemy number one” in American politics, Copland maintained his alliance with the party while others ran in fear amid the “Red Scare.”

In 1949, Copland ignored threats from the FBI and passed through a mob of anti-communist fanatics to attend the Communist Party’s famous Waldorf Peace Conference. Speaking on a panel along with Soviet composer Dmitry Shostakovich, Copland expressed open sympathy for the USSR. Copland’s speech described the new Cold War as “almost worse for art than the real thing.” He warned that such geopolitical division could force artists and musicians “into a mood of suspicion, ill-will, and dread that typifies the cold war attitude and he’ll create nothing.”

American Voices Found in Song

As one hears the voice of a tenor performing Copland’s folk song arrangement, it is important to remember that not a single word of these lyrics was written by Copland himself. All of these songs were well known among the American people, most composed before Copland had even been born, many by anonymous authors.

Copland’s set begins with highlighting the life of those who transported goods on the Ohio River prior to the construction of America’s railroads. The lyrics of The Boatman’s Dance point to realities of working-class life in ages to come:

And when the boatman gets on shore

He spends his cash and works for more.

High row the boatmen row,

Floatin’ down the river the Ohio.

Then dance the boatmen dance,

O dance the boatmen dance.

O dance all night ’til broad daylight,

And go home with the gals in the mornin’.

From there, the tenor switches to another lively tune, The Dodger Song, mocking the hypocrisy of politicians, law enforcement and clergyman who virtue-signal to the public while privately serving their own financial gain.

Copland’s set features Simple Gifts, the well-known utopian anthem of an early American religious sect called The Shakers. Prior to his 1952 folk set, Copland had already revived the tune in popularity with his Appalachian Spring ballet in 1944. Copland’s symphonic arrangement slowed down the hymn to almost a triumphant march. With orchestral power and brass, the passions of these communal pacifist settlers known to writhe on the floor in explosive prayer meetings were heard.

As Copland’s “Old American Song” arrangement concludes, he ends with the well known American hymn Shall We Gather By The River, followed by the lively Gospel song from the Minstrel tradition Ching-A-Ring Chaw.

On the surface, the lyrics of Ching-A-Ring Chaw appear to be the words of street preacher, describing a theological view of heaven. However, they certainly force those in the audience who are familiar with socialism to think of a land of economic justice potentially much closer home:

You don’t need to fear,

If you have no money,

You don’t need none there,

To buy you milk and honey…

When the mornin’ come,

All in grand and splendour,

Stand out in the sun,

And hear the holy thunder!

Brothers hear me out,

The promised land’s a-comin’

“No Matter in What Shape It Comes…”

What must be understood is that Aaron Copland, a musical composer who was loyal to Marxism-Leninism and admired the Soviet Union, did not try to impose foreign ideas on his audience. Rather, Copland found progressive and socialistic sentiments that already existed in America’s history and culture and gave them voice.

Copland did roughly the same thing in his famous 1944 symphonic piece called Lincoln Portrait. As the orchestra performed, a narrator read out, not the words of Marx, Lenin, or Stalin, but rather the words of the beloved American President himself. Among Copland’s selected quotations are the following:

“It is the eternal struggle between two principles, right and wrong, throughout the world. It is the same spirit that says ‘you toil and work and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.’ No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation, and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.”

“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.”

The quotation that Copland’s Lincoln Portrait concludes with is the well-known phrase “government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” It should be noted that these words from Lincoln were also quoted by the Venezuelan Foreign Minister in Manhattan during the UN General Assembly in September of 2018. “We consider this to be a socialist idea,” Arreaza told the audience hundreds of activists who gathered to greet him at a reception.

Lessons for Both the Left and the Right

In 2019, democratic socialism is on the rise among young Americans. The popularity of Bernie Sanders is not small, with many polls showing him as a potential front runner in the 2020 elections.

However, among young people with socialist ideas, a kind of ugly disgust with all aspects of American history can often be heard. Chants of “America was never great” have been heard as a response to Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again.” Young socialists have burned the American flag, and while there is admiration for foreign figures like Che Guevara, knowledge of iconic American socialist leaders like Eugene Debs, Gus Hall, William Z. Foster, Huey Newton, and others is widely absent.

Many young socialists give the impression that they do not want to make the United States a better place, but merely to punish the rich and powerful for their crimes. An atmosphere of identity politics, revenge, resentment, and bitterness accompanies pessimistic predictions about climate change and denunciations of average Americans who do not join “the movement.”

Copland did not make this mistake. He was New-York born, to a Russian-immigrant family. He was a gay communist sympathizer. He traveled extensively, studying and working in an avant-garde Europe, yet he still found a way to fit his socialistic views into an American narrative.Copland’s music is communist through and through, with lyrics and narrations highlighting class struggle and utopian aspirations. However, this has not stopped him from being considered one of the most iconically-American composers of modern times. It is, in fact, ironic that he was ever considered my McCarthyites as “un-American”.

Furthermore, despite the fact that Copland live through the horrors of the Second World War followed by the McCarthyist witch hunts and the nuclear arms race, his music exudes hope. There is a bright optimism shining through each of his pieces portraying an American landscape, invoking the hopeful sentiments of the frontier, truly believing that a better world is on the horizon, despite present hardships.

While many liberals have echoed CNN and the Democratic National Committee in pushing a “New Cold War” they should read Copland’s strong condemnation of such an atmosphere. Artists and musicians, along with all Americans, should be free to express themselves without fear of being labeled as “un-American” or “Russian bots.” Copland suffered as one of 151 blacklisted artists, only seeing his career revived once the Red Scare hysteria had subsided. The interrogation from Senator Joe McCarthy that Copland endured was part of a particularly dark chapter in American history, and it is something that all Americans should seek to avoid. The Russiagate conspiracy hysteria is anything but progressive.

Trump supporters in rustbelt states, bemoaning the economic setbacks of de-industrialization, the opioid crisis, and a dropping standard of living, ranting against globalism, could also learn a lot from Copland’s work. Right-wingers continue to declare “socialism” as their enemy, applauding Trump’s statement that “America will never be a socialist country” from his January State of the Union address.

Progressivism Deep Inside “Americana”

Yet, if one listens to the undisputedly American voices that Copland chose to highlight in his American folk songs it is clear that the sentiments found in the pages of Marx’s writings have always been widespread among the American people. From the slave revolts of Nat Turner, to the strikes of the Industrial Workers of the World, to militant anti-war protests of the 1960s, a desire for peace and economic justice has always burned within the souls of millions of Americans.

In fact, the “globalists” who Trump supporters loathe have been the primary promoters of capitalism around the world, most specifically its neoliberal brand. Deregulation, cuts in public spending, and lowering taxes on the rich have been forced on country after country by the IMF and the World Bank. The looting of the industrial heartland of the United States took place alongside a global effort to do the same thing to many developing countries, escalating after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Countries like Venezuela, Bolivia, Russia, and China have broken out of this international system of greed-based economics, and established economies centered around public control. No longer held back by greed, the state is able to direct efforts toward raising living standards, alleviating poverty, and creating new economic opportunity.

If Trump supporters truly want to see a “great” America, replacing the deeply divided and increasingly impoverished homeland they currently live in, they should reconsider their illogical repetition of free market clichés and their hatred of socialism. As Copland’s work reminds us, socialism will not be the end of the American spirit right-wingers so closely cherish. Despite efforts to cover them up, these sentiments can already be found within “Americana.”

Caleb Maupin is a political analyst and activist based in New York. He studied political science at Baldwin-Wallace College and was inspired and involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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