Ruth Crawford Seeger

Yesterday while hunting around in a used book store, I found a biography of Ruth Crawford Seeger tucked away in the classical music section. But, I thought to myself, shouldn’t this be in with the folk music books? Wasn’t Ruth Crawford Seeger a transcriber of folk music field recordings, and an arranger of folk tunes for children? It turns out that while she did do those things, she was above all an excellent composer of classical music. (There’s a wonderful lecture about Ruth Crawford Seeger as composer, including recorded performances of her compositions, here, on the Library of Congress web site — skip ahead to 8:50 to avoid the interminable and boring introduction of the speaker.)

Over the past twenty-four hours, I have been reading this biography, Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer’s Search for American Music by Judith Tucker, in every spare moment.I discovered that Crawford Seeger’s interest in folk music was part of who she was as a composer: in a sense, she was applying some of Bartok’s ideas about folk music to the American scene. She took folk music seriously as music, and used it in her serious compositions. Then too, as a mid-twnetieth century woman composer, trying to balance her artistic work with her responsibilities as a wife and mother, she got involved in music education, arranging American folk tunes for children and their teachers and parents.

All this led me to dig out my old copy of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s American Folk Songs for Children. I remember when my mother gave me this book. We were down in the basement of the house where my sisters and I grew up, standing in front of the set of shelves where mom kept the things that she had had before she got married, including her old books on teaching and education. I had been working as a Director of Religious Education for a few years, and although mom never fully approved of religious education as a career (she would have preferred it had I become a real schoolteacher instead of a religious educator), I think she had decided that at least I was doing good work. “Here,” she said, “You can probably use this,” and without any ceremony handed me Ruth Crawford Seeger’s book.

This afternoon, I opened this old book yet again. My mother had written her name on the fly leaf: “Nancy Allen”; and Ruth Crawford Seeger had signed the book on the next page. Mom wrote her name again at the top of page 33, so someone couldn’t steal the book and cut out the flyleaf (I do the same thing, but I put my name on page 101). There’s still an old rusty paper clip mom had used to mark the song “There Was a Man and He Was Mad.” On one page, there are some of my pencilled notes next to a song I once used in a children’s worship service. I’ve used the tunes to many of the songs in the book, but this afternoon I realized that I had never played through any of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s piano arrangements. Most piano arrangements for folk songs are boring and trite, so I tend to ignore them.

But I sat down at my cheap little digital keyboard and played through some of the arrangements. They are astonishingly good. They are simple enough that even a lousy pianist like me can get through them. They may be simple, but they are not trite : some of the arrangements are polished little gems that delightfully combine Crawford Seeger’s modernist harmonic and tonal sensibilities with the folk tunes. “Bought Me a Cat,” for example, is in the key of F major, but her arrangement opens with F in the right hand, while the left hand plays D a minor third below that — is that F6 or D minor? And then the second measure has A in the right hand, with E and C below that in the left hand — is that a C6 chord, or an inversion of an A minor chord? These harmonically ambiguous chords continue through the arrangement, but it’s all very satisfying to play, and satisfying to sing along to; I found myself wanting to play this song over and over again.

As I was playing this and others of the songs, I struck me that one of the hardest things to do is to write really good music that is also simple. Any trained composer can write complicated music that (at the least) sounds imposing, even if it is playable only by virtuoso performers. And many people write arrangements that are relatively simple, but that are also boring or trite — the current Unitarian Universalist hymnal supplement is full of such arrangements. But to come up with music that’s simple and good — that only comes from a genius, or from the folk process.