"Setting the Historical Record, Song by Song," The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 5, 2012By Pia Catton
Learning American history by listening to music may sound like a short cut, but when the teacher is opera star Thomas Hampson, it's more of a highbrow leg-up.
Mr. Hampson the 56-year-old baritone from Spokane, Wash., is internationally known for his interpretations of Mahler and Verdi. But he's also a longtime advocate of American song: His Hampsong Foundation, established in 2003, undertakes projects that support the art of song, commissioning composers, funding research, hosting seminars and classes, and launching new-media initiatives.
The series, as the tag line explains, "explores the history of American culture through the eyes of our poets and ears of our composers." So while it is a look at history through music, all of the concepts are intricately intertwined.
"It's not chronological," Mr. Hampson said recently. "What I am interested in is poetry set to music as an identifier of American culture. It's about America becoming America, warts and all."
Mr. Hampson narrates each of the hourlong programs, some of which are devoted to composers—"Stephen Foster," "Song of Walt Whitman," "Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance"—while others have more conceptual arcs: "War Cries," "Songs We've Always Sung," "American Characters."
As for the songs themselves, Mr. Hampson highlights an enormous variety of vocalists and includes some of his own recordings as well. Popular culture is represented by familiar names like Pete Seeger and Ray Charles; current opera-world luminaries, such as Joyce DiDonato and Deborah Voigt, are here, as are beloved voices from the past, like Marian Anderson.
The series, which is produced with WFMT Radio Network of Chicago, has already launched in other radio markets. The breadth of the material was one of the reasons that WQXR picked up the program. "You're hearing Willie Nelson singing Stephen Foster," said program director Matt Abramovitz.
Miriam Lewin, the coordinating producer of the series, worked closely with Mr. Hampson and the program's writers to create a balance that would equal about 40 minutes of music and 20 minutes of talk for each episode. That wasn't easy when it came to picking the songs since, as Ms. Lewin explained, "we could choose from anything that has been recorded."
Ms. Lewin herself wrote three of the programs, including "Places That Sing to Us," which focuses on geographic diversity. The hour takes the audience from "Erie Canal" to "Shenandoah" (a signature of Mr. Hampson's repertory), but also to more obscure songs. "'A Life in the West' was a recruiting song to get people to move off the East Coast and to the warm hearty neighbors in the West," said Ms. Lewin. "I wanted to get to know the country through music."
Songs like "A Life in the West" helped Mr. Hampson guide the series toward his underlying philosophy, namely that "song is a prism through which to see a culture."
Looking back at songs also reveals some of the forgotten authors who deserve better recognition, such as Arthur Farwell, a composer and founder of the music publishing label Wa-Wan Press. Mr. Hampson also devotes a program to American women composers, such as Amy Marcy Beach.
"Song of America" also serves as a vehicle for examining the longstanding impact of poets and poetry on song. "Whitman loosened the ties of poetic structure. It was a gift to composers," said Mr. Hampson. "When you get into the 20th century, a lot of this became jaded, and we see that in the songs as well. We hear the poets screaming."
This month, Mr. Hampson is touring a "Song of America" recital with pianist Craig Rutenberg that will come to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's concert stage on Jan. 22. On air or in person, his goal of sharing an art form extends into preserving history: "It helps us accept times of our past that are built on moral decisions that we cannot possibly understand, and that we are ashamed of. But it lets us not destroy the artists who lived at that time."