Copland, Ruth Crawford Seeger, and the Hoe-Down from Rodeo

Everyone knows the “Hoe-Down” tune from Aaron Copland’s Ballet Rodeo (even if they don’t know who Aaron Copland was or what the name of the tune is):

Copland didn’t compose that melody. His teacher, Nadia Boulanger, had encouraged him as she did all her students to base his compositions on the indigenous folk music of his own country. So we have Boulanger to thank, in large part, for the Americana that colored Copland’s oeuvre. For the “Hoe-Down” movement of Rodeo, Copland harmonized and orchestrated a tune called “Bonaparte’s Retreat” that Kentucky fiddler William Hamilton Stepp recorded for musicologist Alan Lomax in 1937. Ruth Crawford Seeger later transcribed Lomax’s recording, and it was from her transcription that Copland drew the main theme of the famous final movement of his 1942 ballet.

As you’ll recall from my discussion of Ruth Crawford Seeger in A Year in Classical Music: 1926, vol. 9, Seeger was a highly gifted Modernist American composer, but she stopped writing music in the mid-1930’s because she and her husband, the musicologist and composer Charles Seeger (father of Pete Seeger, who would make a name for himself in the American folk music movement of the 1960’s along with Bob Dylan, among others), had developed socialist convictions sufficient to convince them to abandon fine art music, which they had come to see as elitist and of no benefit to the working class and its nascent revolution. From the mid-30’s on, the couple devoted their musical skill to collecting and anthologizing American folk music.

You can find Seeger’s transcription in Jeff Titon’s anthology Old Time Kentucky Fiddle Tunes.

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