I’ve often said that the best arrangements result when you’ve known and loved a song for many years, but have somehow never gotten around to setting it! Somehow this “creative procrastination” allows for a distillation of essence, and you hear clearly into the emotive heart of the song. Or perhaps it’s more about the mellowing of the composer with age, with life’s tragedies and triumphs seasoning the soul, which allows for a fuller — though hard-earned — perception of the expressive possibilities inherent in the song.
At any rate, after singing this song many years to myself at the piano from time to time, a request from Rick Bjella and the San Antonio Chamber Choir brought about the opportunity to capture a “take” in the amber of musical notation.
As I set to work, I discovered an odd but essential adjustment in the Foster text that I had, at some point over the years, unconsciously made: I had reversed a word order in that memorable phrase “many days you have lingered around my cabin door.” I had changed “many days you have lingered” to “many days have you lingered.”
It might seem like a small thing, but somehow I feel that my whole setting is based on the phrase rhythm that comes with that reversal. The little “snap” of folk rhythm that becomes possible with that diction adjustment opens many things up in the piece. Perhaps I exaggerate, but little details like this can sometimes set the tone for a whole piece.
I chose one of my favorite keys — B major — with its beautiful color, for the setting, because of its low-lying vocal placement for this particular melody. And I let the piano set up a simple banjo-style slow groove with the help of an imagined “drone string” in the top note of the accompaniment. I do love the color of the violin on a folk piece, so I added that too, on expressive interludes providing textural contrast.
For the voices, I kept things mostly simple (if divisi into 6 parts, every once in a while, is simple!), but allowed things to combine in a way that lovely contours and harmonies resulted. One of my favorite things to do is to let countermelodies emerge from snippets of the text; often in the creative process of arranging, the omission of a word can create a possibility of a different melodic arc. At several points in this arrangement, the omission of the word “cabin” in the aforementioned phrase allows for a countermelody with an expressive octave leap: “Many days have you lingered A-ROUND my door.” The tenors first sing this material in the second refrain, later followed by the soaring sopranos in the piece’s final refrain.
It’s small details like these that allow a piece to form its own “face,” its own distinctiveness within the repertory — bound to be large — with a well-loved song, as many folks have put their own stamp upon it. Stephen Foster captured the emotional truth of a universal experience — suffering — in his song, and somehow I think that individual people feel that their own hardships are “seen” and validated in the space that this song opens up. How can a song do that? That is one of the continual mysteries. And we, as arrangers, do our best to magnify the expressive power that the songs, somehow, already come with — simple and unadorned — before we try to make something fancy out of them.
(And this is also why, when I teach arranging, that I ask my students to continually ask themselves as they work: Does the song live? We can mostly stay out of its way, and support it as it does its job of reaching us. Stephen Foster, after more than a century, is still reaching us, straight from his heart to ours.)