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An opportunity to hear the first American song

October 2, 2009 | 12:18 pm

Hampson1 It’s nothing new for contemporary singers to dig into the depths of the American Songbook for material. But what Thomas Hampson is up to might be considered a full-blown archeological excavation by comparison.

The seminal baritone, who is in recital Saturday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, isn’t just paying homage to the usual luminaries like Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. Instead, since 2005, Hampson has been touring with a vocal program that draws on his ongoing “Song of America” project, an endeavor that led the Library of Congress to appoint him as a special advisor and to team up with him in presenting the earliest American music that plumbs the nation’s classical roots, even before it was a nation.

In this program, Hampson will take his audience back as far as we can go: Included is “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free,” a song that most musical scholars agree is the earliest secular composition by an American. Written in 1759 by Francis Hopkinson, who would subsequently be one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, the piece was published in 1788 in a collection dedicated to George Washington, a friend of the author.

“My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free” was written when Hopkinson was 21. The lyrics are derived from a poem called “Love and Innocence” by the 17th century Irish poet Thomas Parnell. The ballad is less than 1 ½ minutes long and rooted in pastoral imagery, with the singer reflecting on his “blest” state in terms of birds, streams and “breathing gales.”

Hopkinson Hopkinson himself seems to have led a wondrous existence of the kind that a blest few in pre-Revolutionary America experienced. He was an educated raconteur, one whose profession -- in this case, law -- was supplemented by involvement in politics, science and music. He apparently also made a good first impression. In a letter to his wife, Abigail, John Adams wrote of Hopkinson: “He is one of your pretty, little, curious, ingenious men. ... I have not met with anything in natural history more amusing and entertaining than his personal appearance; yet he is genteel and well-bred, and is very social.”

Outside of musicology circles, Hopkinson’s compositional endeavors were largely treated as an afterthought following his death in 1791. A monograph written about him in 1856, as part of a collection about lives of signers of the Declaration of Independence, included a scant two-sentence mention of his songwriting skills, noting only that he had written a humorous song about imbibing called “The Battle of the Kegs.”

In addition to Saturday’s performance, which is being presented by L.A. Opera, Hampson will perform material from “Song of America” again next Friday, at Campbell Hall on the UC Santa Barbara campus. “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free” has just been recorded by Hampson on a new CD collection of American songs from the last 200-plus years called “Wondrous Free -- Songs of America II,” which includes pieces by Leonard Bernstein, Charles Ives and Stephen Foster, among others.

For more about Hampson and his “Song of America” project, read a recent Los Angeles Times piece about the singer here.

-- Christopher Smith

Top photo: Thomas Hampson. Credit: Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times.

Bottom photo: An archival image of Hopkinson.