Song of America

‘Song of America: Beyond Liberty’ at the Tanglewood Festival

On July 31, Thomas Hampson brings his Song of America: Beyond Liberty project to the Tanglewood Festival, featuring guest artist, pianist Lara Downes, and the Beyond Liberty Players. Together they bring the American songbook to Ozawa Hall and explore the influential people and monumental events that helped create and define America.

“Song of Liberty: Beyond America” West Coast premiere in Spokane

Thomas Hampson performs his “Song of Liberty: Beyond America” project in his hometown of Spokane, on March 1 with pianist Lara Downes and an ensemble of musicians from the Spokane Symphony. Marking the west coast premiere of his new project, Hampson performs an all-American program that explores the influential people, poetry and events that helped create and define our nation. At the Martin Woldson Theater, using song, personal anecdotes and historical monologues, Hampson will take the audience on a journey through American history as seen through the eyes of poets and the ears of composers.

American songs

Monterey County Herald | June 1st, 2006

A few days ago a man by the name of Albert Imperato left a message on my phone urging me to write about a unique concert taking place in San Jose by Thomas Hampson, the internationally renowned baritone.

Intrigued, I returned the call to learned more about the famed singer’s collaboration with the Library of Congress to celebrate the history of creativity in America.

Described once as tall, charismatic and as square-jawed as the Marlboro man, Hampson possesses a rich, affecting voice and empowers his singing with interpretive depth and intelligence.

Hampson retraces the culture of music in ‘Song of America’

During a recital at the Holland Performing Arts Center on Wednesday, internationally acclaimed baritone Thomas Hampson will give listeners a structured overview of the American song.

He will talk about how the song has progressed since the 1700s until the present, touching on everything from Psalms settings to African-American spirituals.
And he will demonstrate.

The program has all the makings of a music history class. But Hampson, a lifelong champion of the American song, says it most definitely is not. There won’t be any preaching, soapboxes or finger-wagging.

“You’re not coming to this concert to be lectured at or told what to think,” Hampson said from New York City, where he is performing at the Metropolitan Opera.

Rather, the concerts on the “Song of America Tour,” which began in November, offer gentle exposure to music that has made America what it is today.

“Song in America is such a huge subject, and a wonderful reflection of our culture,” Hampson said. “Our stories are to be found in our songs.”

The “Song of America Tour” grew out of Hampson’s many hours in the archives at the Library of Congress. Poring over scores by composers such as George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Aaron Copland and others, Hampson became increasingly aware of the treasure that was in the library. So he decided – along with Librarian of Congress James H. Billington – that more people should know about it.

At every stop, Hampson has performed recitals – not classes – that take listeners through a series of songs by American poets and composers. Along with the performance, the Library of Congress offers displays of rare objects.

During Hampson’s performance in Omaha, holograph manuscripts of works such as Louis Armstrong’s “Gully Low Blues” and Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” will be exhibited in the Holland Center’s lobby.

“After this experience, (audience members) will hopefully feel better about themselves,” Hampson said, “and clearer about how proud we can all be about what we call this American experience.”

Hampson celebrates the songs of America

He has lived in Austria for years, logs substantial time in London, and for most of the year lives out of a suitcase while appearing on the world’s leading opera stages and concert platforms.

Despite the peripatetic existence and long expatriate status, few artists have done as much for the cause of American song than Thomas Hampson. The celebrated baritone has recorded discs devoted to Stephen Foster, Charles Ives, Samuel Barber, settings of Whitman poetry and composers ranging from Charles Tomlinson Griffes to Deems Taylor.

In collaboration with the Library of Congress, Hampson is now embarked on an 11-city tour that charts the rich legacy of homegrown vocal music from psalm settings, hymns and spirituals to the present day. His “Song of America” tour comes to the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach Sunday evening.

Speaking from London, Hampson’s enthusiasm for American song remains palpable as he speaks of the wealth and depth of our vocal heritage. The singer emphasizes that this is not a didactic or academic exercise, but populist in the best sense of the word.

“I don’t see this as a finger-wagging project or condescending,” Hampson said. “I truly believe that this celebration of the American spirit is as much in our poems and in our composers as anything in the popular medium and that they can live very happily side by side.”

The baritone’s take on this vast repertoire has evolved over several years, and he sees it as a “storyboard of American culture.” For Hampson, immersing himself in two centuries of American vocal music has made him view our tradition as a fascinating continuum.

“It’s become very clear to me that looking at American culture and especially American song, it’s more worthwhile looking at periods of development in our history than searching for our Brahms or our Schubert,” Hampson said. “If you slice off American history every 10 or 15 years you’ll be able to tell that story through the poems and through the different kinds of songs that remain.”

Hampson stressed that unlike Europe’s lied tradition, the populist element in American song was embedded in the nation’s cultural fabric from the start. “Drawing a nice clean line between popular song and concert song is just impossible,” he said.

The decade of the 1860s was a time of particular cultural ferment, with the nation headed into Civil War and Stephen Foster’s songs achieving the height of their popularity.

“You have iconoclastic composers like Stephen Foster that embody so much of the Irish, parlor, porch-singing song tradition of Robert Burns and Thomas Moore,” Hampson said.

“But at the same time, Foster sort of plants the root of American song right into the soil. Because with the minstrelsy and with the parlor songs and the ballads, we’re coming out of the English tradition and we’re going into the vaudeville tradition and the musical theater tradition.”

Hampson thinks that America’s cultural traditions are deeper and more profound than is generally credited across the pond and characterized by a firm sense of individuality and Realpolitik.

“If you look at the poets and their stories and you look at the composers and their songs, it’s people thinking about what it means to be an American and what it means to be in America or be an artist in America. All these things tie together in the song repertoire like in no other culture I know; you don’t find Brahms writing what its like to be a German,” he said.

Though the core of the program is similar, elements are altered for each city and stop. At Kravis, U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser will participate in a pre-concert roundtable and Hampson will perform a new work, A Heartland Portrait by Stephen Paulus, set to Kooser’s texts. Hampson said another reason for bringing the recital to Kravis is in part a public thank-you to Palm Beach philanthropist John Kluge, whose financial support of the Library of Congress has been instrumental in this project.

Hampson has always been in the forefront of technology to advocate vocal music and his art, from his own pioneering Web site ( to his ongoing collaborations with the Library of Congress. The singer is helping to create a mass database for the Library of Congress Web site, with American songs, composers and other information extensively cross-referenced. “If it’s in the public domain I think you should be able to just grab it off the Web,” Hampson said. “I think there should be a free listening library, too, and it should be streamed so people can listen and become aware of this music.”

In his view, the Internet has vast untapped potential for re-introducing America’s songs into the home in the same way that sheet music on the parlor piano served to entertain and enlighten families in the 19th century.

“It’s helping people who want to know more simply get into the music and get into the composers,” Hampson said. “When I was growing up, I checked records out of the public library and that’s how I learned about music. I think we’ve left that part of public awareness and accessibility behind. I think that was a mistake and I think new technology can just take us in leaps and bounds back into people’s homes and lives.”

Hampson will present his “Song of America” program at 8 p.m. Sunday at the Kravis Center, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Tickets are $15-$80. There will be a pre-concert discussion with Hampson, Kooser and Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. Also, Hampson will present the lecture “Creative America” at 4 p.m. Saturday at the Cohen Pavilion of the Kravis Center. Tickets are $25. Contact, 800-572-8471 and 561-832-7469.

Lawrence A. Johnson can be reached at [email protected] or 954-356-4708.

Touring on a Double Bill: A Baritone and Uncle Sam

True, it has long presented concerts in its Coolidge Auditorium, but this is something else. On Thursday, the American baritone Thomas Hampson arrives at Carnegie Hall, the next stop (after a performance Tuesday at the Ordway Theater in St. Paul) on his tour “Song of America.” The tour, which began in November in this suburb of Kansas City, Kan., and is presented by the library, is meant to draw attention not only to the extraordinary collection of American music among its vast holdings but also to its flourishing Web site, which registered nearly four billion hits last year.

“We are probably the world’s largest provider of dependable, high-quality educational cultural material on the Internet,” said James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress. The site offers free access to more than 10 million documents, books and other items. It will soon include an audio component that will feature a variety of singers performing American songs, and Mr. Hampson is intimately involved with that project as well.

“Tom is not only a great artist,” Dr. Billington said, “but he is a great maven – if that’s the right word – of the collections of the library. Over the years, he has impressed our curators with his curiosity and his interest, and we seemed to hit it off on this idea that maybe we take the song of America and give it back to Americans.”

Mr. Hampson participates in several events in each city. Here, in November, he made a speech and sang unaccompanied at a reception at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Donald J. Hall Sr. (he, the retired chairman of Hallmark Cards).

The next morning, he visited the new home of University Academy, an elementary and high school for urban children (built entirely with private money and so successful that all seniors go on to college). While addressing the students, he demonstrated the power of singing without a microphone with “High Row the Boatman Row,” and the assembly roared its approval. He also observed as dozens of students procured copyrights for sculptures, essays, poems and musical compositions.

Later that day, he gave a master class with four promising singers. He dropped by a Library of Congress seminar for local teachers on how to use the Web site as a resource to encourage creativity, and shared his thoughts on the value of education, exposure to the arts and the importance of understanding our artistic heritage. The concert itself drew a large crowd.
These activities fit right in with Mr. Hampson’s longstanding interest in American vocal music. He has made several recordings of it, including the new companion disc, “Song of America,” from EMI Classics. With his recital programs, he said, he wants to show how “music is one of the great powerhouses of creativity in America.”

“What I want to make sure,” he added, “is that we, say, have a listen to Sam Barber, have a listen to John Duke and to Virgil Thomson; and no, you can still enjoy ‘Shenandoah,’ and it’s O.K. to listen to them in the same hour; and yes, Jerome Kern was a great composer, and Cole Porter was one of the most brilliant Americans who ever walked the face – all those sorts of things.

“The body of this repertoire is about the American experience and the American development, the American psyche,” he continued. “It is always song and storytelling. It is always linked up to a particular school of thought at a particular slice of time in the various epochs and generations that make up the American experience. And you can hear that.”

For all of that, Mr. Hampson is not the tour’s only attraction. The library is also displaying groups of 20 or more treasures from its collection in some cities. Concertgoers here saw manuscript pages by Gershwin, Louis Armstrong and Stephen Foster as well as first editions of songs, photographs and letters of historical interest. The range and variety are intentional, and they reflect the nature of Mr. Hampson’s programming.

“My particular expertise is in what I would call the concert song, which I prefer as a phrase to ‘art song,’ because ‘art song’ can be somewhat off-putting,” he said. To him, a concert song is different from – though not necessarily better than – a Jerome Kern song. “The issue is really a poem or a poetic form being willfully set to music,” he explained. “There is a musical interpretation; augmentation; expansion; enlivening, enriching manipulation; distortion of the poem. And the minute that happens, it’s really obviously no longer the poem, nor is it a musical element either. It’s a song.”

The varied carols we hear: A tribute to American song

Baritone Thomas Hampson has often visited Philadelphia with American song on his mind, if not in his throat. So it is with his Sunday Kimmel Center concert, but with much bigger matters on the periphery.

Titled the Library of Congress Song of America Tour, the recital arrives with a kiosk of manuscripts by Leonard Bernstein, Gian Carlo Menotti and others from the library’s holdings as well as a preconcert lecture by James H. Billington, the official librarian of Congress. In conjunction with all this, EMI has released Hampson’s compact disc Song of America. Though both concert and CD come with a nod to the nation’s famous repository of some 130 million items, the central idea on Hampson’s mind is preserving the possibility of curiosity.

“We’ve lost our way,” Hampson declared the other day, “by not making music available to the general public and students – as it was when I was starting out.”

That idea falls strangely into a world where duplication of pop-music CDs and free downloads threaten the music industry. But much of what Hampson is referring to hasn’t been mass-market fodder for decades or longer. This music, however, is essential to a cultural identity. His Sunday program ranges from Stephen Foster music written in the 1860s to Charles Tomlinson Griffes songs from 1918.

Few American singers have achieved as much European success and artistic credibility as Hampson. He’s based in Vienna, where he lives with no less than the Countess Andrea Herberstein. Earlier in life, he was among the few Americans to pass muster with the ultra-severe retired soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who teaches German art song as a calling at least as high as the priesthood.

Yet Hampson, 50, doesn’t hesitate to return to “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair.” He hasn’t lost his accent from his native Spokane, Wash. – or forgotten all of what happened before he became one of the world’s great Don Giovannis. One key stop on that route was Spokane’s public library; he took home a dozen LPs at a time.

“Where do you do that today? And in what quantities can you do that today? What are the restrictions?” he asks. “I want to make a Web site for American music and poetry… with downloadable musical archives and biographic information. The notes [to the songs] are in the public domain. Why aren’t they available?”

Hampson did fine without resources such as the Library of Congress for some time – mainly through luck. He’s the kind of singer who learned more on his feet than in the conservatory, first earning a political science degree from Eastern Washington University and later studying at UCLA without matriculating.

“If I could do a tour with enough money to get from place to place, I was your man,” he recalls.

Then there was that fateful 1982 engagement at the Santa Fe Opera when he stumbled upon three filing cabinets of American music in an Albuquerque antique shop.

“I started pawing through it, and asked what he [the shop owner] would want for the whole lot of them. I gave him a hundred bucks, and you’d think I’d just handed him a house,” he says. “That afternoon I drove back in my little rental car stacked with boxes of sheet music. I had everything from Lou Harrison to David Diamond to early Samuel Barber scores… . ”

Such accidental repositories are vanishing in high-rent cities, which makes the Library of Congress a more crucial resource, at a time when the institution is attempting to change its image as the Fort Knox of libraries (full of riches but hard to penetrate). How that might come together with online access to the music remains to be seen.

Hampson has no lack of Web presence, with and the “I Hear America Singing” site (at However, a significant step is fostering an appreciation for American song that’s lasting and appropriate.

Looking for the American version of Schubert, he says, isn’t the point: “That’s a knee-jerk defensiveness to European culture. What’s fascinating is the prolific-ness of American songwriters. The downside is that there’s such a big risk to fail involved. The disparity in quality in any of our composers can be pretty wide… .”

In other words, the work has to be judged as a collective rather than individual output – and one that was probably more in touch with social and political changes than with European composers. Irving Berlin was the best example; he was a virtual chameleon who embodied dance crazes from ragtime to the twist.

The thought that American songwriters shouldn’t be judged for not attempting greatness at every turn is fairly radical. But even the best American songs require leaps into a distant cultural mind-set – which often means looking beyond heart-on-the-sleeve sentimentality.

“I don’t want to run away from that,” says Hampson, “but I think that because of the sentimentality, some of the real messages of these songs are lost. There’s a lot of pain of displacement in those songs. And that’s always made great song material.”

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at 215-854-4907 or
[email protected] Read his recent work at


Dr. James H Billington: My Music

Despite my lack of talent in music – I cannot even carry a tune – I have been deeply affected by it throughout my life. My mother and grandmother filled our house with beautiful piano music; and a great music teacher in my elementary school near Philadelphia, Jean Staples, imparted an infectious enthusiasm for American songs. When I sing in the shower even today, it is usually those songs. My wonderful wife Marjorie, who really can sing, has endured these sounds for 48 years.

No doubting Thomas: an interview with Thomas Hampson

Thomas Hampson is a man with a mission. When the singer speaks during our meeting in New York in mid-November, words just tumble from his mouth in an amazing display of acuity, exuberance, and truly dizzying speed. He speaks with the zeal of a true evangelist.
Hampson has plenty of reason to be keyed up about his latest project. Working alongside the Library of Congress, the silken-voiced 50-year-old is celebrating the achievements of American composers and poets old and new in his ‘Song in America’ initiative. The project’s nucleus is a season-long, 12-city tour of the States, which kicked off with November dates in Kansas City and Fort Worth and continues on to Philadelphia, St Paul, New York, Detroit, West Palm Beach, Oxford (Mississippi), Chicago, Omaha, San Jose, and Denver next spring.

Hampson’s performances only form part of the project’s scope, however. Along the way, he will also offer masterclasses and open rehearsals to local voice students and teachers. And the Library of Congress is mounting exhibitions in each tour-stop city that will include items of local interest.

The Library is coordinating educational programmes for teachers and hosting special events, including document preservation workshops for the public, and screenings of classic American movies. The Library’s Folklife Center will also collect oral histories from notable citizens of each region.
The singer is quick to note that all these activities are not an end in themselves, or the summation of past efforts. ‘This is just the kick-off of something much bigger,’ he proudly forecasts. One of the project’s foremost long-term goals is to get the American public better acquainted with one of the country’s greatest cultural treasures, the Library of Congress.

Taken as a whole, the project fuses together several of the baritone’s deepest personal passions. It combines an examination of the deep intersections of American poetry and music, a study of the place of music within American society, an opportunity to shore up the song recital as a living art-form, the chance to enhance musical and arts education in the US, and – a natural for this gear-head artist – the prospect both to explore and to enhance the possibilities presented by new technology.
Hampson’s live performances will undoubtedly touch upon some of his signature music.

However, he confesses: ‘I haven’t quite finalised the repertoire for each concert.’ Choices will vary from city to city, built on the idea of contextualising and honouring regional contributions.
One highlight, undoubtedly, will be the world premiere in St. Paul of a new song-cycle by Stephen Paulus. The texts are tied into the Library of Congress theme: Paulus has set works by the US Poet Laureate, Nebraska-based Ted Kooser.
‘If someone had said to me, “Tom, make us the great American sampler”,’ Hampson muses, ‘I probably would have thrown myself out the window. There is so much fantastic stuff in our massive output.’ Still, some choices are easier than others, and Hampson’s latest CD release offers clues to this richness. To mark the tour, Hampson’s label, Angel/EMI Classics, has issued a compilation featuring great American songs the baritone has recorded over the past 15 years.
The album encompasses traditional tunes like Shenandoah and The Erie Canal to Stephen Foster’s iconic Hard Times Come Again No More. Not surprisingly, though, Walt Whitman’s poetry takes centre stage, courtesy of a dazzling array of settings by such notables as Kurt Weill, Leonard Bernstein and Ned Rorem (not to mention rarities by Elinor Remick Warren and Henry Thacker Burleigh). ‘I can’t imagine this project without Walt Whitman,’ says Hampson.

Both the tour and album provide ample opportunity for Hampson to ‘connect the dots’, as he puts it. ‘I’m not big on questions like “What’s your favourite role?” “What’s the best opera?” “Who’s the most interesting song composer?'” he confides. I’m not convinced that the most interesting focal point of music is to follow a composer and his or her development. I’m not good at pyramids. Instead, what interests me more is the larger process, and to link various eras in our history to other cultural currents, like sociological phenomena and philosophical schools.’

To the singer, that process is also about watching American identity take shape over time. By this, he means not just the answers and conclusions American composers and poets have given in their work, but the questions that they have asked in folk music and art music since the nation’s earliest days: Who are we as a people? Who is that ‘we,’ anyway? Can there ever be a singular ‘we’ in the United States?

‘Part of the reason for asking those questions is of course to work through those questions for ourselves,’ he says. ‘But we ask ourselves about these issues so that others can look at us and understand who the hell we are. That’s part of my life, certainly.’

‘I deal daily with people who have a very perverse notion of what America is’

‘I live a great deal of my life in Europe [he largely divides his time between Washington State and Vienna] and I deal daily with people who have, in my view, a very perverse – even if it’s positive, still a perverse – notion of what America is, and why America is.’
‘Actually, the idea of codifying our national identity interests me more than the question of whether or not our creative minds have gotten the answers right. I love the process. I think that every generation is part of the decision process, and that conversation takes us farther.’

Hampson feels strongly about one goal of this project: to lay claim not just to American music, but also to help ignite passion among singers, pianists, and audiences for the song recital itself.

‘I sing at a lot of non-concert functions, like golf tournaments,’ he says. ‘And those guys love the music! I’ll sing, for example, “Hush you bye, don’t you cry”,’ – the words that start off “The Little Horses,” a lullaby that Copland used in his Old American Songs – and suddenly the guys listening remember that their grandmothers sang them that tune. But the act of singing, and certainly the concert song, doesn’t seem to be as self-understood as we singers take it.’

I suggest that perhaps part of the reason for that dissolution of meaning and memory is because we, as a culture, have largely left song out of the rhythm of our daily contemporary lives. Usually the public is happy to leave singing, whether classical or pop, to the professionals.
‘Absolutely,’ Hampson agrees. ‘But the acute situation is this: the idea of a concert song, the act of having a person sing without a microphone, standing with a piano and giving an almost ballad-like narration, has become pretty strange for people.’

From Hampson’s perspective, though, one of the primary goals of ‘Song in America’ is to create interest in the incredible free resources that the Library of Congress offers, both in terms of what is available online and what hopefully awaits down the road. These resources come not a minute too soon for internet-buff Hampson, whose edifying website ( has been up and running for years.

Backing the new technologies:
podcasting and the internet can provide
endless educational possibilities,
says Thomas Hampson

‘The Library is the great repository, and one of the last great experiments, that Western civilisation got right,’ Hampson asserts. ‘It is the great descendant of Alexandria, and yet most of the general public doesn’t have a direct connect to it. What the Library can do for any citizen in the world, but especially for an American, most of us don’t know.’
Helping to assemble online resources is a particular pleasure. ‘I love this stuff,’ he enthuses. ‘With podcasting, and video podcasting – not to mention Internet! – the educational possibilities are endless. It’s all just too exciting for words.’

Indeed, he muses that his zeal for all things digital might mean a career change. ‘It may very well be that I just move slowly but surely off the front line of performing and more into the back line of database building.’

‘Give me the money and I’ll turn into the Google of recording!

The database he has in mind is one that would, in a perfect world, fully account for the development of American song, making scores, recordings, and other materials available to performers, students, and the public alike. ‘Give me the money, and I’ll turn into the Google of the recording industry!’ he half-jokes.
In the meantime, though, the singer is doing all he can to fan the flame of interest in American song: ‘I’m keeping the pot boiling. It’s my watch, it’s my time, and I’m not going to let the fire go out.’

The varied carols we hear: A tribute to American song

Philadelphia Inquirer | January 3, 2006

By David Patrick Stearns
Inquirer Music Critic

Baritone Thomas Hampson has often visited Philadelphia with American song on his mind, if not in his throat. So it is with his Sunday Kimmel Center concert, but with much bigger matters on the periphery.

Titled the Library of Congress Song of America Tour, the recital arrives with a kiosk of manuscripts by Leonard Bernstein, Gian Carlo Menotti and others from the library’s holdings as well as a preconcert lecture by James H. Billington, the official librarian of Congress. In conjunction with all this, EMI has released Hampson’s compact disc Song of America. Though both concert and CD come with a nod to the nation’s famous repository of some 130 million items, the central idea on Hampson’s mind is preserving the possibility of curiosity.

No doubting Thomas: An interview with Thomas Hampson

The GRAMOPHONE | January 2006

One of the great voices of America reveals himself as a zealot … on behalf of song and singing. And he’s taking the message to the nation, he tells Anastasia Tsioulcas

Thomas Hampson is a man with a mission. When the singer speaks during our meeting in New York in mid-November, words just tumble from his mouth in an amazing display of acuity, exuberance, and truly dizzying speed. He speaks with the zeal of a true evangelist.

A Study of the Text and Music for Whitman’s To What You Said

© Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold

Here the frailest leaves of me and yet my strongest lasting,
Here I shade and hide my thoughts, I myself do not expose them,
And yet they expose me more than all my other poems.

In his 1860 Calamus poems Walt Whitman chose the metaphor of fragile leaves to suggest not only the most naked thoughts which lie beneath his verse, but also the bond of intimacy that links poet to reader. Frail might the leaves have been, but hardy too, for such is the meaning of the calamus image – the grass which stands firmly rooted in earth, blowing freely in the wind, delicate and defiant. The calamus metaphor runs throughout Whitman’s verse from the 1860’s onward and with it the recurring themes of the love of comrades, the bond of male love (both erotic and platonic), the wonders of the human body, and the charge to a young nation to cast off the chains of convention and celebrate the myriad of human experiences.

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