Old American Songs I (arr Silvester)

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Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland (arr. William Silvester)

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Subtitle: For Band and Chorus

General Info

Year: 1950 / 2001
Duration: c. 11:35
Difficulty: IV (see Ratings for explanation)
Original Medium: Piano and voice
Publisher: Boosey & Hawkes
Cost: Score and Parts (print) - $75.00   |   Score Only (print) - $10.95


1. Set I, No. 1, The Boatman's Dance - 2:29
2. Set I, No. 2, The Dodger - 2:06
3. Set I, No. 4, Simple Gifts - 2:03
4. Set I, No. 5, I Bought Me a Cat - 2:15


(Needed - please join the WRP if you can help.)


None discovered thus far.

Program Notes

Old American Songs are two sets of songs arranged by Aaron Copland in 1950 and 1952, respectively, after research in the Sheet Music Collection of the Harris Collection of American Poetry and Plays, in the John Hay Library at Brown University. Originally scored for voice and piano, they were reworked for baritone (or mezzo-soprano) and orchestra.

Set 1 was first performed by Peter Pears (tenor) and Benjamin Britten (piano) on June 17, 1950 at Aldeburgh. The version of Set 1 for baritone and orchestra was premiered on January 7, 1955, by William Warfield and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Alfred Wallenstein.

- Program Note from Wikipedia

In The Boatmen’s Dance, a minstrel song with a banjo melody dating back to 1843, Copland used an echo effect before each verse to reflect the Ohio River landscape. The Dodger was a campaign song from the presidential election of 1884, based on allegations of political corruption against Republican James Blaine by supporters of Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland. Simple Gifts was notated in 1848 by Elder Joseph Brackett at a Shaker community in Maine; while Copland used this popular melody in his earlier ballet Appalachian Spring, the vocal version features an accompaniment on weak beats to create a more flowing, recitative style. I Bought Me a Cat is a whimsical children’s song similar to Old MacDonald, in which a new animal (and accompanying barnyard sound!) is introduced after each refrain. Copland rewrote the bouncy minstrel song Ching-a-Ring Chaw, with its rhythmic nonsense syllables, in an effort to efface the original version’s racist overtones and create a “milk and honey” image of the American promised land.

By the time the Old American Songs were written, much of America’s innocence was beginning to fade. The simplicity of these songs, coupled with Copland’s sensitive treatment of them, seems to point to the composer’s desire to return to a less complicated period in time, a desire still echoing through the distorted lens of American politics today.

- Program Note from University of British Columbia Symphonic Wind Ensemble, concert program, 22 March 2018

Old American Songs (1950 and 1952) are two sets of songs originally written for voice and piano and then reworked for voice and orchestra. The first set, composed in 1950, was performed by tenor Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten on the piano. Britten had originally asked Copland to arrange American folk tunes for his music festival, thus both sets of Old American Songs came to be.

The first set includes five tunes: The Boatman’s Dance, The Dodger, Long Time Ago, Simple Gifts and I Bought Me a Cat. Simple Gifts is a Shaker song originally composed in 1848 by an elder from the Alfred Shaker Village. The song is known as a traditional dance tune, where many of the lyrics include words to the actual steps of the dance. Old American Songs is not the first composition of Copland’s to include Simple Gifts, as it is also heard in his ballet Appalachian Spring, which premiered a few years before in 1944.

I Bought Me a Cat, more commonly known as the “Farmyard Song”, is a song about farm animals that originated in the British Isles and was then popular in the United States. The narrator begins by talking of buying a cat, feeding it under a tree, and then proceeds to vocalize the sound or call of the animal they are singing about. Each verse would introduce a new animal, and recall the sounds of the animals from previous verses.

- Program Note from SUNY Fredonia Wind Symphony concert program, 12 March 2020


State Ratings

None discovered thus far.


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Works for Winds by This Composer


  • Copland, A.; Silvester, W. (2001). Old American Songs : First Set : For Band And Chorus [score]. Boosey & Hawkes: [United States].
  • Old American Songs, Wikipedia Accessed 20 March 2018