Old American Folk Songs – By Aaron Copland



This month we have been recording four short accompanied folk songs of our own choice for examination.  Folk music is generally music that has been passed down through generations.  When taking ABRSM exams (the exam board of the Royal Schools of Music) for singing they always test unaccompanied tradition songs (folk songs).  It is seen as an important part of each singing exam.  They may seem like an easy choice, however, they are one of the most difficult songs to perform to an optimum standard.  ABRSM themselves says the testing allows examiners to “assess the elements of unaccompanied singing through a more natural, musical and ‘singerly’ genre.  Singers have to pitch and produce the notes from within, and accommodate the extra elements of language and meaning with nowhere to hide”.


The choice of folk song can be vital some of them can have a very wide range required.  I’ve always sung British folk songs but I saw a concert at City Halls in Glasgow with work of the composer Aaron Copland and decided at that moment to research more of his work to consider performing a program of his.  People consider his music to evoke the vast American landscape and pioneering spirit.


Aaron Copland 1900 – 1990 was one of America’s best modern music composers born in Brooklyn, New York.  He wrote for voice, piano, orchestra; for plays, movies and dance he was also a conductor, pianist, teacher and author.  He studied in Paris, France for four years in his early twenties and decided that the French had a very ‘French’ way of writing and that the Americans had nothing like that so he decided to compose music that was truly American.  He used ideas from jazz music, cowboy songs, American folk songs and popular songs during the time of the American civil war, he even wrote a ballet about Billy the Kid the famous gun-slinger.

Scene From Appalachian Spring


He was a highly decorated man.  In 1945 he won the Pulitzer Prize for his music for a ballet called ‘Appalachian Spring’, the last part of the ballet is based on ‘A Gift to be Simple’ a traditional song.  In 1950 he won an Academy Award for his compositions for the film ‘The Heiress’ following nominations for his scores for ‘Of Mice and Men’, ‘Our Town’ and ‘The North Star’.

Olivia de Havilland And Montgomery Clift In The Heiress ( 1949 )


In 1964 President Johnson presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom America’s highest award to civilians. In 1987 he was awarded a special Congressional Gold Medal by the United States Congress.

His work in the late 1940’s and 1950’s include the use of the Schonberg twelve-tone system but found it ran contrary to his desire to reach a wide audience.

The four songs I chose to sing were:

The Boatman’s Dance

Long Time Ago

The Little Horses

Ching-A-Ring Chaw

50 thoughts on “Old American Folk Songs – By Aaron Copland

  1. Interesting, Charlotte. If I were to choose American folk songs, I would pick from the Traditional music genre. These songs were from the mountains of the deep south and have a simple, melodic almost medieval quality and should be sung with pure, bell-like tones. They are fascinating and far less covered than what is called folk music here, like that of Joan Baez and Joni Mitchel, for example. You might find that whole area of American music interesting to study and sing.

  2. As an American I am delighted that you are discovering the music of Aaron Copland, and that you are sharing what you have learned! Much of our folk music is descended from the music of the British Isles, but Copland is entirely American.

    1. Thank you Peter I enjoyed the songs with piano and voice, I’d like to perform them with a full orchestra too as he also composed them for that a very talented man.
      Best wishes

  3. Being an old American, I am glad you are recording some of our folk songs. I have to tell you that I love some of the older English and Scottish ballads. Dougie Maclean has a wonderful album of the Scottish poets and composers Robert Burns, Neil Gow and Robert Tannahill. I acquired my love of British folk tunes from listening to Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention.

    1. I’ve learnt folk songs of the British aisles for years. I used to get my Irish maths teacher ironically called Mr England to talk them to me to get the Irish accent right 😊. It was very interesting learning about Mr Copland and the songs origins.
      Best wishes

  4. Thank you for your enthusiasm and interest in the music of Aaron Copeland. I am looking very much forward to hearing your presentations.. I trust we shall be treated to your styling of American folk music…

  5. This was a good thing to do, Charlotte. I used to have some songs by Charles Ives on vinyl, but i’m not sure where they are now.

    1. Thanks Rod, it was a great thing to do, you never know if I’ll get an inpromptu invite to sing in the States :). I’ve not heard of Charles Ives were the vinyl reordings the songs I recorded ?

      Best wishes

  6. oo what fun. now as to whether tis too interests you…dunno 😀 but with the same enthusiasm
    the lady has a film scoring history sung with animal logic a turn of the 1990’s enterprise with stuart copeland and standley clark and now after this solo time listed sought higher education in music this being a salable work on the subject. some giver the screaching cat sounds more pleasing obviously she not to their tastes but, 🙂 it’s not here because I subscribe to that.. she now is a bit more country-esque and plays with gal pals in a band called the refugees signing mommy’s of their times things.
    this link is to a database that covers real live 1920’s and older recordings. this is a more public domain/museum type thing and can require you to truly know your music like oh samuel p johnson was it a fine 2-‘s stride pianist. it will sorta still feel ragtimey but it just stylistically isn’t. you may even listen to a nearly hundred year old political speech I think by william howard taft… it’s so weird to hear the social divisions present that oldly folk just is mute on.

    1. I heard a large choir on You Tube perform the Ching-A-Ring Chaw piece it was absolutely stunning in unison with male and female voices combined. It fills me with joy to sing it.

      Best wishes

  7. Hello Charlotte. Enjoyed reading your post and what you learned about Aaron Copland as a subject for American folk songs. I’m sure you’ll do his songs justice as they are fitting to your particular voice. Like the artists mentioned by bethbyrnes, I too half-expected you might be referring to such folk songs as those which came from the American folk music scene of the 1960’s, such as Peter,Paul and Mary; I suppose because that was the music of my childhood. Glad to see you dug deeper. Well done!

  8. I certainly hope you put the finished product up when it is completed. It would be great to hear you take on another genre of music. It is also great that your professors are steering you into other regions and their influences.

    Can not wait to hear the finished product!

    1. I couldn’t put my exam recording on-line Steve but I will try my best to do another recording of them. I have sung contemporary pop usually for collaborations but I have to be careful not to over-sing them, it’s not too bad with a ballad like Christina Perri’s ‘Jar of Hearts’ and big sings like Katie Perry’s ‘Fireworks’ and Queen’s ‘Who Wants to Live Forever’ and I do a pretty good version of Duffy’s ‘Warwick Avenue’ but I start going all operatic and people like them to sound like what they are used to on the radio 🙂

      Best wishes

      1. I am sure you enjoy a wide range of music and I always wondered how you would tackle a standard pop song. I am sure if it evokes something in you then it is enjoyable to belt out. I mean, we all are guilty of hearing a song on the radio in our cars and then belting out something that we probably would never admit to listening to.

        Well, one day when you can get around to recording a version of The Hamster Dance and putting it up…we will be waiting! Ha ha!

  9. There is nothing quite like American folk music…I grew up on it. When I was young, our music teacher taught us all these old songs and I remember being unhappy because other schools were learning the popular music ~ but now I am thankful. Such rich history and great tunes.

    Really would love to hear your sing some of these ~ very cool!

  10. I really enjoy listening to Copeland’s compositions – they really do sound so different from our European music. I look forward to hearing the songs you have chosen. Best wishes, Clare x

  11. Hi Charlotte,
    Wonderful voice and thank you for letting us enjoy it from your blog!
    A note about the American Flag…..it is displayed incorrectly. The stars should be on the left side when hung. Thought that you might want to know.
    All the best,

    1. Thanks so much Janice. I’ve just finished my interview blog about Judith Howarth the International Soprano that’s been working with me on the role of Eve, I hope you have time to take a look 😊.
      Best wishes

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