Rain Song

Much is made about Dvorak’s influence on American composers during his three-year sojourn here in the 1890s, but nowadays little gets heard by the American composers who actually studied with him. Once of the most fascinating is the composer/violinist Will Marion Cook (1869–1944) who was the first African-American to score a Broadway musical and today is remembered when at all through a handful of his black-character art-songs. An extremely generous portion of them are collected in performances by the late tenor William Brown, who was a champion of African-American composers, on the 2-CD set Swing Along. While many of these have not aged well—their faux vernacularisms sounding stilted and at times embarrassingly condescending to African-Americans—Will Marion Cook certainly never intended this and was a product of his era. So a song like “Rain Song” to a contemporary listener might seem quaint at best and politically incorrect at worst. But try to listen without contgemporary biases (we have our own shortcomings these days too, after all) and you’ll experience a fascinating time portal into the beginnings of the contemporary American art song.

—FJO