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Billy the Kid and Aaron Copland

Billy the Kid and Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland’s life and work have something to tell us about American history, culture, and identity.

Jeffrey Gedmin

Jeffrey Gedmin's weekly newsletter on politics, culture, and music is made possible by American Purpose's generous members. Join today to receive his newsletter and other great benefits.

Aaron Copland (1900–90), of Russian-Lithuanian roots—his father, whose name originally had been Kaplan, immigrated to Brooklyn in 1877 to escape military conscription—developed a fascination with American history and culture. Among his works: Appalachian Spring, Lincoln Portrait, Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson, Down a Country Lane, the opera The Tender Land, and the ballets Rodeo and Billy the Kid.

The French composer Darius Milhaud saw Rodeo and Billy the Kid as authentically Copland, and very American. There was, said Milhaud—who himself immigrated to America to escape Nazi rule in 1940—a “feeling for the soil . . . the wide plains with their soft colorings, where the cowboy sings his nostalgic songs.” Milhaud saw in Copland’s music a powerful mixture of “pounding dance rhythms,” of “underlying distress” buttressed by “sturdy strength and sun-drenched movement.”

I’ve always been struck by Copland’s ballet Billy the Kid. The idea came from Lincoln Kirstein, the poet, editor, and co-founder of the School of American Ballet. Copland was taken by the saga of the notorious outlaw Henry McCarty, alias William H. Bonney and best known as Billy the Kid. The story is a vivid, famously violent one. McCarty was alleged to have murdered a person for every year of his short life. His first robbery was of a Chinese laundry at fifteen. He lived as a gambler, cattle rustler, and horse thief. At age twenty-one, McCarty was shot and killed by sheriff Pat Garrett at Maxwell Ranch in New Mexico.

Leonard Bernstein once noted that Copland the man and Copland the composer could show very different personalities. The measured, mild-mannered colleague and friend, an avowed pacifist who by his own admission was not easily hurt and never carried grudges, produced a good deal of music with “prophetic severity, a ferocious rage, a sharp bite, a prickly snap . . . a wounding, an agonized howl.”

The Brooklyn Copland grew up in was not without its edges. At the beginning of the century, this corner of New York was inhabited mostly by German and Irish immigrants. But then mixed in, too, were African Americans and newcomers from the West Indies, Wales, Sweden, and Finland. On the way to school, young Aaron walked through “a tough and slightly scary neighborhood,” he’d recount. To be avoided at all costs was “the Irish section, down on Dean Street and Vanderbilt Avenue.”

In his memoir, Copland describes his parents as hardworking, busy, loyal Americans. He can’t imagine his father Harris, who ran a local department store, ever retiring. His mother Sarah came from a small town called Vištytis on the Russian-Lithuanian border near Kaliningrad. She attended high school in Dallas and always considered herself a Texan. Copland grew up a believer in what he called “Jewish adaptability.”

We’ve just hosted a program with the D.C. public library (West End Neighborhood Branch) that included a discussion of music by Copland. The evening’s wider aim was to see issues of race, gender, and ethnicity through the lens of music. In Copland’s work there’s plenty to dig into. Copland rewrote lyrics for his adaptation of the minstrel song “Ching-a-Ring Chaw” because, he said at the time, “I did not want to take any chance of . . . being construed as racist.”

AP editorial board member Michael Mandelbaum has written for us about Beverly Gage’s revisionist biography of J. Edgar Hoover, a man who both abused his authority and established elements of an administrative state that were efficient and effective. You can watch the discussion we hosted on the book with Beverly and Michael here. You can read Frank Fukuyama’s series on the history of the administrative state and the need for a competent, accountable, well-administered bureaucracy here. Incidentally, Beverly Gage has just been awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her meticulous research on Hoover.

We’re interested in the new George Kennan biography. Richard Aldous has just hosted for his AP “Bookstack” podcast Frank Costigliola on his Kennan: A Life between Worlds. You can read Gabriel Schoenfeld on the Costigliola book here.

We’re interested in anything that offers a competition of ideas and possibilities in the GOP. We noted this week that Republican Governor Chris Sununu may throw his hat in for 2024. He was the first guest Chuck Lane hosted for his AP podcast “Times Like These with Charles Lane” last May. You can listen to that conversation here.

Elliot Ackerman should run for office. We’ve just hosted Elliot for a discussion of his new novel Halcyon, a blend of counterfactual history and futurism and a way to think about some of our thorniest social and cultural issues today. Elliot served five tours of duty as a Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan and was awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star for Valor, and a Purple Heart. Read when you have a chance the recent Wall Street Journal profile of Elliot. On June 6 we’ll host for a salon Joanne Leedom-Ackerman (Elliot’s Mom) on her new novel. But more about that next week.

This week, we’re publishing the first in a three-part series on America’s fraught history with debt. Rutgers historian and AP editorial board member Kate Epstein is tackling this for us. It’s a formidable piece of work, steeped as much in culture as it is in economics.

Politics, public policy, and foreign policy may be the mainstay of what we do, but there’s always culture as complement. There are different ways to think about how we rejuvenate liberalism and keep authoritarian impulses at bay. Sometimes it’s useful, says my colleague Suzi Garment, to come at things sideways.

We started our series with D.C. Public Library with a program titled, “Why James Baldwin?” featuring AP editorial board member Azar Nafisi and Nolan Harris. Last week, we took up “Old and New American Songs” as social history with Erin Freeman, Michael Kimmage, and Andrew Lee. We’ll turn next in this series to “What’s an American?” Roya Hakakian and other distinguished conversation partners will help us untangle some knots. Date and details to come soon. In case you missed it, here’s my own teaser. It’s the story of composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a mass of American contradictions and paradoxes.

For a brilliant evening of music in Washington D.C., there’s Lee’s D.C. Strings’ annual gala at the Arts Club of Washington on June 3.

On June 4, you can hear Freeman lead the City Choir of Washington in a performance of old and new American music. The program will include Aaron Copland and the collection of songs he adapted in 1950 and 1952.

Copland is an American original. As a high schooler and novice choral singer, I sang a program of Copland’s at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra, Copland conducting. More about that another time. If you want to learn more about Copland’s life and work, I recommend Howard Pollack’s fine biography and Copland’s own autobiographies, co-authored with musicologist Vivian Perlis. Here’s a performance I like very much, meanwhile; it’s Copland’s “Old American Songs.”

Jeffrey Gedmin is co-founder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose.

Image: A 1988 publicity photograph of Christina Johnson and Eddie Shellman for the Copland ballet Billy the Kid, photographed by Martha Swope. (New York Public Library)

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