Aura Lee in the morning

Today’s morning music, playing (on the Apple Music that’s beamed into my bedroom during the night) when I arose at 3:40 am: from Anonymous 4’s 1865Songs of Hope and Home from the American Civil War, “Aura Lee” (sung by Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, with harmony and instrumental accompaniment by Bruce Molsky). An achingly lovely song — you can listen to the performance here — with a chorus that’s three lines of sentimental love song, topped by the transcendent line “And swallows in the air”, with its breath-taking image of the birds swooping in flight.

(#1) Photo by Keith Gough, as cover art for the demo video for “Swallows in Air”, from John Newell’s A Timbered Choir, settings (for voices and piano) of poems by Wendell Berry

The program: about the Civil War song song “Aura Lea / Lee”; about the 2015 Anonymous 4 album; and (briefly) about the Newell / Berry “Swallows in Air”.

The Civil War song. The tune has what amounts to an entire life of its own. From Wikipedia:

“Aura Lea” (sometimes spelled “Aura Lee”) is an American Civil War song about a maiden. It was written by W. W. Fosdick (lyrics) and George R. Poulton (music). The melody was used in Elvis Presley’s 1956 hit song “Love Me Tender”.

Aura Lea was published by Poulton, an Englishman who had come to America with his family as a boy in 1838, and Fosdick in 1861. It was a sentimental ballad at a time when upbeat and cheerful songs were more popular in the music halls. It became popular as a minstrel song, and the tune was also taken up by the U.S. Military Academy as a graduating class song, called “Army Blue”; new lyrics by L. W. Becklaw were sung to the original melody.

The Civil War began shortly after the song’s release, “Aura Lea” was adopted by soldiers on both sides, and was often sung around campfires.

The tune is familiar to modern audiences from the 1956 Elvis Presley #1 hit “Love Me Tender” with new lyrics by Ken Darby, a derivative adaptation of the original. A later Presley recording for the film The Trouble with Girls entitled “Violet (Flower of N.Y.U.)” also used the melody of “Aura Lea”.

… Parody: The 1983 film Trading Places includes Ivy League stockbrokers at their racquet club singing a sexualized parody of this song about their college days and their fraternity’s conquest of various women on locations at campus, with the refrain changed to “Constance Frye.” The television show How I Met Your Mother 2009 episode (season 5 episode 22) “Robots Versus Wrestlers” features Ted Mosby at an upper-class party singing the Trading Places “Constance Frye” version along with film director Peter Bogdanovich and The New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz.

There are many versions in popular culture. And many covers, including on a McGarrigle family album of Civil War songs (in a John Hartford instrumental) and by Maria Muldaur.

The melody of  Aura Lee, harmonized (so that you can see it’s not just 3-chord (I-IV-V) harmony):

(#2) From an easy piano tutorial for beginners, arranged by Zebrakeys

From the text:

Verse 1:
When the blackbird in the Spring,
Neath the willow tree,
Sat and rocked, I heard him sing,
Sing of Aura Lee.

Aura Lea, Aura Lee,
Maid of golden hair;
Sunshine came along with thee,
And swallows in the air.

There are 4 verses. In the 1st, the blackbird (in the willow tree) is introduced as the singer of Aura Lee’s charms. Then come 3 verses in which the singer praises Aura Lee in largely conventional terms, except that in verse 4 we get some striking imagery in “the bird may flee the willow’s golden hair”, merging the golden-haired Aura Lee with the golden-leaved tree.

The Anonymous 4 recording. (Full disclosure: I am not only a long-time admirer of Anonymous 4’s work, but also have a tangential association with the singers.) On the NPR site, “First Listen: Anonymous 4, ‘1865’”, by Anastasia Tsioulcas on 1/4/15:

Four a cappella voices making divine music: This has been the heart of Anonymous 4’s mission for nearly three decades. And as the group bids farewell this season, they’re saying goodbye in a poignant way — with the release of an album that couldn’t feel more timely. It commemorates the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction.

1865 — subtitled Songs of Hope and Home from the American Civil War — is the third release in what’s become an Americana triptych from this quartet (less anonymously, Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek). This time around, they’re joined by an excellent old-time musician, Bruce Molsky, who sings and plays fiddle, banjo and guitar. It’s an organic collaboration, but the combination also evokes a specific dynamic: women tending the homefront, men on the battlefield. And as in their two previous releases of American songs, American Angels and Gloryland, the singing is gorgeous, with deep, sweet feeling. By the time “Abide with Me” and “Shall We Gather at the River” roll around at the close of this album, it’s quite possible you’ll be sniffling.

One hundred and 50 years on, there are still a few songs whose tunes and ideas remain familiar, including Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More,” published in 1854, and Robert Lowry’s 1864 “Shall We Gather at the River?” Another, the 1861 love song “Aura Lee,” found new life in another context altogether, as the melody for one of Elvis Presley’s biggest hits, “Love Me Tender.” But some have largely receded from popular memory; if some of today’s alt-folkies are looking for “new” material, there’s plenty here.

It’s nearly impossible to overstate how important singing was during the Civil War, not just for those waiting back home but to the fighting men as well. Songwriters raced to churn out thousands of new tunes and publishers created small booklets of lyrics, called “songsters,” that soldiers and civilians could carry in their pockets. Some were abolitionist songs, some were Southern and in many, words were switched out to favor one side or the other.

But as Anonymous 4 mention in their liner notes, there are many wartime accounts of opposing soldiers, in their camps pitched across a battlefield or river from each other, trading songs back and forth in succession and even raising their voices together. In the present days of deep rifts and political enmities — hard times, to be sure — it’s good to remember what has the power to bind us together.

I cannot get through this album, or the McGarrigles’ Civil War album, without a certain amount of weeping in despair. But “Aura Lee” is (meant to be) sweet release from the horrors of the war. Far more wrenching is Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times, Come Around No More”, which I’ll revisit in an appendix below.

John Newell’s “Swallows in Air”. Newell’s notes on the video (which you can view here):

This video is a demo presentation of the fourth (and very short) piece in my collection A Timbered Choir. The eight works for various choral groupings (most with piano) are settings of poems written by Wendell Berry, novelist, poet, environmental activist, cultural critic and farmer. Berry’s poems were inspired by, and mostly written during, his solitary ventures in the woods and fields surrounding his home in Kentucky. They speak eloquently of the beauty, the joy and the wisdom of nature. The vocal performances are by Matthew Curtis of ChoralTracks and the beautiful photo is by Keith Gough [AZ: #1 above], accessed on and used by permission. The text of Swallows In Air is ©Copyright 1998 by Wendell Berry, from A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems, 1979 – 1997. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint. This work is contained in the playlist John Newell Works, found on my YouTube channel @John Newell.

Appendix. From my 9/3/19 posting “More dream linguistics”:

Every so often I have a spectacularly vivid dream in which the solution to some linguistic puzzle that’s been deviling me explodes in my mind. All I have to do is save it, in my mental cloud storage, until I can enter it into my computer. The idea is not only good and true, it is also very beautiful. Unfortunately, when I shake myself fully awake, I see that it is in fact crackpot crap.

So it was yesterday morning, after a sleep primed by a moving performance of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times, Come Again No More” on my iTunes. The conviction that yes, that was it, that song was the answer to everything, persisted through three hazy toilet breaks, until I actually woke up and faced the hard truth that I didn’t even know what the question was. But, having had Anonymous 4 and Bruce Molsky take me to 1865 and into the world of the song, I was deeply sorrowful: hard times would surely come around again, and my linguistics was helpless against that bleak future.

I ended up spending the morning with Foster’s “Hard Times”, specifically mourning the tragedy of American chattel slavery, disasters of the 1850s, the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the poverty of Appalachia and the Ozarks, but then dissolving into free-floating anxiety over everything from the Babylonian captivity to the madness of our king (and there’s an awful lot to weep over in between).

All this driven by the music.

The crucial chorus of the song:

‘Tis the song, the sign of the weary
Hard times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered all around my cabin door
Oh hard times, come again no more.

Lamenting the hard times of the past and pleading that they not return.

The performance that I heard in the night: Anonymous 4 with Bruce Molsky “Hard Times Come Again No More”, on the album 1865: Songs of Hope and Home from the American Civil War (2015) — 1865 marking the end of the Civil War; it can be viewed here.

… Foster’s South was a sentimental fabrication, a piece of imaginative fiction, peopled by stage folk: dreamy elegant whites and simple but oppressed blacks. Yet the song could be folded into other, different, narratives of terrible pasts and uncertain futures. It could, for instance, be sung by blacks, for blacks

… Eventually, by singers of the caliber of Mavis Staples, in a version (from the album Beautiful Dreamer (2004)) informed by the black experience but illustrated by images of the Great Depression, with both white and black subjects; it can be viewed here.

It can be worked into a lament for the hardness of life in the Southern mountains, combined with passionate affection for the place, as in the Anonymous Four + Molsky version in #1 above, or in the astonishing re-imagining of the song in a live performance by a trio of Yo-Yo Ma, Marc O’Connor, and Edgar Meyer, with James Taylor on vocals (on the album Appalachian Journey (2000)), which you can view here.

Or it can carry the whole weight of our past sorrows and fears for the future, displayed (apparently) without reference to any particular history, as in a heart-breaking live performance by Kate & Anna McGarrigle and friends (Rufus Wainwright, Emmylou Harris, Mary Black, Karen Matheson, and Rod Paterson), which you can view here.

But everything comes with a context, everything has a history. It’s relevant that the folksinging McGarrigle sisters grew up in Montreal, with parents of Irish and French-Canadian descent; their music grows out of the experience of the Scots and Irish in Canada, and more generally in North America, and of the French-Canadians. Kate McGarrigle’s American-Canadian son Rufus Wainwright: openly gay. Emmylou Harris: Southern country and folk singer, with Appalachian roots. Mary Black: Irish. Karen Matheson and Rod Paterson: Scottish (and the video was shot on the Atlantic coast of Scotland). Everybody brings a past to this occasion, and there is sorrow in all of those pasts, which the singers draw on in their performance.


2 Responses to “Aura Lee in the morning”

  1. Mitch4 Says:

    Song parodist Allan Sherman used the tune, and a play on the syllables of the name “Aura Lee”, in a brief bit:

    Ev’ry time you take vaccine, take it oral-ly
    As you know the other way is more painfully

    This bit starts at 2:53 in clip at the following link:

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Ah, Joel Levin mentioned this in a FB comment on my posting. My reply:

      Yes, I love the Sherman parody too. It’s in Wikipedia, along with a giant raft of other parodies and allusions. The song is a parody magnet.

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