Sneak preview: “The Public Domain Song Anthology” with jazz chords

Emily West de Zavala

You heard it here first, the University of Virginia’s Aperio Press is publishing a song anthology.  Back in the 1920’s everyone knew these songs.  But up until fairly recently, they have been protected by the Mickey Mouse copyright law.

We at the genderdesk have seen an advance copy of the songbook and were humming along to quite a few of the tunes. And we have in our possession a copy of the forewords and some sample pages.

From the foreword by Chuck Israels, who played with the Bill Evans trio:

This collection of music, created through the 19th century and early 20th, represents the building blocks of what we know as an American musical language: its melodies, harmonies, rhythmic inflections, and its relationship to the ways Americans speak English–the way the music aligns with lyrics.  Familiarity with many of these songs informed the work of the best American songwriters and composers: Berlin and Gershwin, whose earliest works are included here; Porter, Warren, Arlen, Ellington, and Waller; and may others.

…Applying more colorful harmony to these songs–adding more chromatic accompaniments to the mostly diatonic melodies–can help to erase some of the “period piece” nature of the music and make it speak more directly to listeners steeped in experience with Gershwin and Ellington.

We’ve added many suggested possibilities to these songs’ basic harmonies–added secondary dominants where they create drama and resolution; found opportunities for modulation to related keys not necessarily spelled out, but occasionally implied by the original melodies; worked backwards from essential cadences in order to enhance the drama of their arrival; and applied lessons learned from experience with the music of brilliant jazz musicians from Art Tatum to Bill Evans.  This has been done not to change the songs into something they are not, but rather to enhance and emphasize their basic character.  Stephen Foster songs were designed to be played on parlor pianos by pianists with minimal training (at a time when pianos were nearly as ubiquitous in the households of people as television sets are now).

Oh yeah.

If you want to hear what this looks like, watch the two-minute demo on YouTube from the Go Fund Me.

The publication date on this has gotten pushed back, and is now scheduled for February 2020. It is supposed to be at https://doi.org/10.32881/book2 but there is nothing there as yet. The ISBN is 978-1-7333543-0-1  UPDATE: It is now available for download! >>  https://aperio.press/site/books/

Frustrating, yes.  But there is always the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP) / Petrucci Music Library, whose motto is “Sharing the world’s public domain music”. And let’s not get started on the topic of music cataloguing.

While we are waiting, here is a page from the preview: “The Yellow Rose of Texas”. But who was she? Emily D. West, as some have supposed? Or maybe Emily West de Zavala, the wife of Lorenzo de Zavala, the interim Vice President of the Republic of Texas. Or perhaps it was Emily West de Zavala who was able to smuggle an indentured servant with a different name from Texas back to New York, back before Texas joined the union as a slave state.

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