Big Melodies: Folk Anthems

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Anthems rouse and inspire audiences with rich musical rhythms. According to Eric Holtan, Musical Director of the Tucson Chamber Artists (TCA), anthems define and unite cultural expressive tradition for our various communities.

For example, says Eric, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” has since 1919 has been considered the official anthem of the NAACP. Often in events with significant African-American participation, it is sung immediately after the Star Spangled Banner. For Irish Americans, “Danny Boy” is regarded as their anthem, and as the most popular hymn in America, “Amazing Grace” can certainly be considered the anthem of American Christians, especially of the Protestant persuasion. “Various groups of all kinds have embraced a piece of music of special meaning to them as their anthem,” Eric explains.

Tucson Chamber Artists
Tucson Chamber Artists in October 2009 (photo by Tucson photographer Martha Lochert)

He also reminds us that this autumn marks the 200th anniversary of America’s national anthem. The words were written on September 14, 1814 by Francis Scott Key, who was inspired by America’s defense of Ft. McHenry in the War of 1812. “Even after the American camp took significant fire from British ships, the American flag, though tattered, still flew over it,” notes Eric. “The tune that he used to set the text was “To Anacreon in Heaven,” which was the official song of the Anacreontic Society in 18th century London, but had often been sung in America with different words for July 4 celebrations during Key’s time. It was not until 1931 that the U.S. officially adopted Key’s “Star Spangled Banner” as the national anthem. Previously, “Hail Columbia” and “My Country Tis of Thee” were de facto anthems. “Star Spangled Banner” is often criticized for being too difficult to sing with its melody of significant range, and the simpler “America the Beautiful” is often suggested as a replacement.”

TCA as Folk Group
TCA, the only professional chamber choir and orchestra of Southern Arizona, focuses its programming on masterworks of the Western art tradition and the diverse music of America. Concerts have included programs of African-American spirituals, Jewish music of the last 200 years, Hispanic music from the Renaissance to today, and folks songs of America’s pioneer days.

Next month, TCA plans a celebration of America’s music, and specifically music that holds special place among all Americans and various American communities defined by ethnicity, religion, and geography.
Eric notes that TCA has opened its recent three seasons with concerts of folk songs and spirituals, and the popularity of the programs has led to their continuation and evolution.

A special segment of this year’s concert traces the evolution of America’s national anthem from the 18th century tune from London to the version that we know today. The concert also explores other pieces regarded as anthems, including “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Danny Boy.”

According to Eric, TCA will step outside of the box with Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” considered to be among the most influential folk anthems of the last century. Also on the program are two pieces by the “father of American music” Stephen Foster: “My Old Kentucky Home” and “Old Folks at Home,” the state songs of Kentucky and Florida, respectively. “Above all, it honors that which Americans have in common: the need for cultural expression for everyday life,” he says.

TCA will perform the “America the Beautiful” concert five times around the area:
— Friday, October 10, 3:00pm, Desert Hills Lutheran Church, Green Valley
— Friday, October 10, 7:30pm, Scottish Rite Temple, downtown Tucson
(TCA’s debut in this historic hall. This concert is in partnership with Tucson Meet Yourself
A $4 discount is offered to those who present a street car ticket from that day.)
— Saturday, October 11, 7:30pm, Grace St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, mid-town Tucson
— Sunday, October 12, 3:00pm, Vista de la Montana Methodist Church, Catalina
— Sunday, October 12, 7:30pm, Episcopal Church of St. Matthew, east Tucson
Tickets are $40 premium seating, $25 general seating, and $5 for students (with id), and are available by calling 401.2651 or visiting


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