The Origin of American Music
Springfield Mountain – Roger McGuinn’s Folk Den: “Springfield Mountain’ is purported to be the first original American ballad. This was how the news was spread in the days before radio, television, or the internet. A minstrel would go from town to town and sing about the most recent events. This song is the true story of twenty-two-year-old Lieutenant Timothy Merrick, a young man who was about to be married. He was bitten by a rattlesnake in Springfield Mountain Massachusetts, on August 7, 1761, and died within three hours of the attack. His grave can still be seen fourteen miles north of that city.
There are many different versions of this ballad. Some were wild exaggerations made up by vaudeville performers, in which Merrick’s wife-to-be died as a result of trying to suck the poison out with a broken tooth: ‘Now Molly had a broken tooth, and so the poison killed them both.’
The Apotheosis of American Music
“Suddenly an idea occurred to me. There had been so much chatter about the limitations of jazz….Jazz, they said, had to be in strict time. It had to cling to dance rhythms. I resolved, if possible, to kill that misconception with one sturdy blow. Inspired by this aim, I set to work composing with unwonted rapidity. No set plan was in my mind—no structure to which my music would conform. The rhapsody, you see, began as a purpose, not a plan.
“At this stage of the piece I was summoned to Boston for the première of Sweet Little Devil. I had already done some work on the rhapsody. It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty-bang that is so often stimulating to a composer….And there I suddenly heard—and even saw on paper—the complete construction of the rhapsody, from beginning to end. No new themes came to me, but I worked on the thematic material already in my mind, and tried to conceive the composition as a whole. I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America—of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness. By the time I reached Boston I had a definite plot of the piece, as distinguished from its actual substance.
“As for the middle theme, it came upon me suddenly, as my music sometimes does. It was at the home of a friend, just after I got back to Gotham….Well, there I was, rattling away [at the piano] without a thought of rhapsodies in blue or any other color. All at once I heard myself playing a theme that must have been haunting me inside, seeking outlet. No sooner had it oozed out of my fingers than I knew I had found it….A week after my return from Boston I completed the Rhapsody in Blue.” — Gershwin in a letter