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.

“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