Below is the abstract for a paper I’ll be presenting at the 2014 Southwest Popular/American Culture Association conference in Albuquerque, NM. Over the next few months, portions of the paper will be posted on this site as well.
From Copland to Weezer: Variations on a Shaker Theme
Simple Gifts has been arranged for a wide variety of ensembles since Joseph Brackett first conceived of the piece in 1848. Some composers have written sets of variations on the theme, the most famous being Aaron Copland’s 1944 ballet, Appalachian Spring. In 2007, Rivers Cuomo, lead singer of the band Weezer, also wrote a sequence of variations on the old tune entitled The Greatest Man That Ever Lived.
Known for their chart topping songs like Undone – the Sweater Song (1994), Island in the Sun (2001), and Beverly Hills (2005), this new piece was met with mixed reviews.
According to the liner notes published with Greatest Man, Cuomo was unaware that his melody was that of Brackett’s Simple Gifts. During recording, someone pointed out the unmistakable similarities, and seeing the resemblance, Cuomo then added the subtitle to his song, (Variations on a Shaker Hymn). Although an interesting anecdote, after a comparative analysis, it seems unlikely that Cuomo had never heard Simple Gifts or Appalachian Spring before writing Greatest Man.
This study will examine the melodies from these three pieces with a focus on the subtle development and changes that have occurred over time, from Brackett to Copland to Cuomo. In addition, the ways in which Cuomo constructs his ten variations will be discussed with further emphasis on the apparent parallels between Greatest Man and Appalachian Spring. Finally, we will look at the reception of Greatest Man to try to understand current trends and interest in traditional forms and traditional folk melodies.