Editor, McLerran Journal
Assistant Band Director, Center ISD, TX
Thank you to my dad for lending me the book that inspired this article.
Only a few generations ago, my family were primarily farmers in the southern United States. For this reason, it was a pleasure to read John Grisham’s historic fiction A Painted House which tells the story of a family in rural Arkansas making a meager living off of cotton farming. The daily trials and tribulations of the main character, seven-year-old Luke Chandler, would have been very similar to the experience that my grandparents and great-grandparents must have had in the early 1900’s and gives the reader a greater appreciation for some of the luxuries of modern life (like central air). This book explores several socially-relevant topics including traditional American values, class lines, racial divisions, and the value of agricultural workers. It occurred to me that the work has several elements in common with another famous American staple, Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring which pays homage to a rural Shaker community in Pennsylvania.
Aaron Copland (1900-1990) was an American composer born in New York City. His education included personal study with the famous French composer Nadia Boulanger at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleu (Machlis). In his lifetime, he was presented with more than thirty honorary degrees and earned the Pulitzer Prize, Academy Award, Grammy Award, and Kennedy Center Honors (Machlis). Copland also published multiple books including What to Listen for in Music (1939), Music and Imagination (1952), Copland on Music (1960), The New Music, 1900–60 (1968), and an autobiography (Machlis). His most notable works include Appalachian Spring (1944), Symphony No. 3 (1946), and Fanfare for the Common Man (1942).
The focus on youth (and new beginnings) in both works reflect the relative newness of our country and the idea of the endless American frontier. Aaron Copland is credited with the creation of this recognizably “American sound” that incorporates elements of folk music, jazz, and the traditional French style of composition (San Francisco Symphony). Appalachian Spring is an original American ballet which attempts to capture shaker culture and the hopeful spirit of the countryside. Just like Grisham’s A Painted House, the “American Dream” in the ballet is represented by agriculture and young adults. Both works take place in the warmer months; the time for construction and harvesting crops before the snowy season returns. While Copland’s characters’ main focus is building a farmhouse for newlyweds, the Chandler family’s main focus in Grisham’s work is the completion of the annual cotton harvest. Both projects require the efforts of the entire family and are uninterrupted by the complex problems of the far away outside world. In the same style of Copland’s earlier work, Billy the Kid (1938), more “open sounds” like fourths and fifths are employed in the ballet to represent the “vastness of the American landscape” and the sense of undiscovered possibilities (San Francisco Symphony).
In both works, A Painted House and Appalachian Spring, there is a recurring theme of scarcity and finding joy in the simple routines of daily life. This is likely due to the fact that Appalachian Spring was written in 1944, in the midst of WWII and not long after the Great Depression rocked the United States. Martha Graham, the inspiration and choreographer for Appalachian Spring, “wanted to create a strong piece that would sum up people’s feelings in a time of peace […] where simplicity was celebrated above all else (San Francisco Symphony).” To tie the ballet together, Copland employs the famous Shaker Hymn, Simple Gifts, composed by Joseph Brackett, Jr. in 1848. The lyrics to the song “’tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free, ‘tis a gift to come down where we ought to be” celebrate one of the central themes of Shaker practice; to live a straightforward life in the service of God and community. Copland’s decision to limit the instrumentation of the ballet to only thirteen players, just the necessary voices, reinforces this motif as well. Grisham’s A Painted House is set only a few years later in the 1950’s, in the midst of the Korean War and before the majority of Americans had recovered from the effects of the Great Depression. Grisham’s young narrator frequently reminds the reader that the family’s house remains unpainted since paint is expensive and is not a necessity for life. The Chandler family spends their time working in the fields, enjoying homemade meals in their farmhouse, and listening to baseball games on the radio; there is no excess attached to their lifestyle, yet they find happiness in the stability of their family routine.
With Grisham’s talent for story-telling and Copland’s characteristically American sound, these two works pay a beautiful homage to the struggles and joys of rural life. With recurring themes of family, possibilities, and simplicity, both A Painted House and Appalachian Spring express the core values of the “American Dream.”
Purchase A Painted House Here
Purchase the score to Appalachian Spring Here
Grisham, John. (2000). A Painted House. Belfry Holdings, Inc. Dell Publishing. Random House,
Inc. New York. Doubleday Books, Inc.
Machlis, Joseph. (2018). Aaron Copland. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica,
Inc. Web. 2, June, 2018. <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Aaron-Copland>
Schwarm, Betsy. (2016). Appalachian Spring. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia
Britannica, Inc. Web. 20 July, 2018. <https://www.britannica.com/topic/Appalachian-
Cummings, Robert. (2018). Aaron Copland: Appalachian Spring, ballet for 13 instruments.
AllMusic. Rhythm One Group. Web. 17 June, 2018
Hall, Roger. (2012). Joseph Brackett’s “Simple Gifts.” Sonneck Society for American Music
Bulletin, Volume XXIII, no. 3. 1997. Web. 17 June, 2018. <http://www.american-
San Francisco Symphony (2009). Copland and the American Sound. Keeping Score. Public
Broadcasting Service. Web. 22 July, 2018.