Listen Now, My Children

Listen Now, My Children was commissioned by the Midland-Odessa Symphony for the 100th Anniversary of the founding of the city of Midland, Texas. It received its world premiere on November 19, 1985 by the Midland-Odessa Symphony under the baton of music director Thomas Hohstadt and has subsequently received numerous performances throughout the nation.

Listen Now, My Children is based on folk songs sung by Texas frontier children. Most are play-party game songs, although there is one lullaby, and there are also two cowboy songs, one of which was really an older folk song appropriated for their own use by Protestant churches as well as by cowboys. The songs are not treated as a medley or pastiche; rather, they are combined in contrapuntal juxtaposition in the style of the 15th century quodlibet. The work utilizes other ancient contrapuntal devices: one will hear several rounds, along with two instances of rota, a special kind of round with an ostinato figure repeated against itself providing harmonic background. The songs are all tied together with a motive derived by the time-honored practice of spelling a word with musical notes (in this case, the word "Midland"). This musical cell (E-D-A-D) not only introduces the entire work, but it also proves to be a strong unifying factor in that all of the folk songs are related to it in one way or another.

Listen Now, My Children is intended as a companion piece to another of my works, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which was also commissioned for a major anniversary, the bicentennial celebration of Shenandoah County, Virginia. It, too, utilizes folk songs—old hymn tunes from The Sacred Harp and other sources—and it has been one of my most successful works. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is prevailingly meditative, with a fast central section. Listen Now, My Children, on the other hand, is more ebullient and outgoing: its slow central lullaby is surrounded by faster outer sections, including near the end a genuine fiddlers’ jamboree.

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Listen Now, My Children opens with the above-mentioned motive, a flourishing, upward-reaching figure, which serves to introduce brief hints of some of the songs which will follow. After the introduction, the first section of the piece presents The Fox Is on the Town and then joins it in counterpoint with Little Joe, the Wrangler and Shoot the Buffalo. This last song was a “rise-you-up,” an ice-breaker at parties, designed to get everyone up and participating in the fun, hence my use of it early in this work. The last phrases of this section combine all three of these tunes plus a canonic imitation of the first tune at the fifth.

Then the music slows down somewhat for the next major section, which first treats two versions of There Was a Little Fight in Mexico. This song, which evidently originated in Texas, had a verse about kissing and hugging, and it was very popular at parties, since when acted out it furnished an excuse for what they all wanted to be doing. I have set this rather tenderly—at first in low flutes—as if it were being fondly remembered years later. This is followed by Texas Boys, a “come-all-ye” song whose main purpose was to give advice. In this case, the advice (“don't you go marryin’ those Texas boys”) seems to have been heeded about as much then as it is now. At the end of this section, perhaps appropriately, the kissing song and the marrying song are played simultaneously.

Then comes a poignant lullaby, The Babes in the Woods, whose verses, which concern two little children left to starve in the forest, illustrate the catastrophe tradition in children’s songs. I have deliberately used uncomplicated devices (descending scales, parallel sixths) to complement the simple beauty of this touching song.

Throughout all the foregoing, the careful listener will detect interweavings of the opening motive, used now to comment upon, now to support the other songs. At this point it commands center stage again for a brief moment and then sends the music off in a dramatically new direction, with a fast tempo and lively rhythms. This section treats Weevily Wheat, Toll-a-Winker, and The Snail Song, using both violin sections as a fiddling band and the brasses piled upon one another in a hearty children’s round. The party soon comes to a climax; the festivities break off, and the haunting strains of When the Work’s All Done this Fall remind us that this has all been a “once-upon-a-time” remembrance, that those days are gone, never to return. But the exuberance of the memories and of the present itself returns for a brief final say and brings the work to an exhilarating conclusion.

I must acknowledge my debt to Francis Abernethy, President of the Texas Folklore Society, whose assistance in researching Texas folk songs has been most generous and helpful.

Program Notes by Samuel Jones