Today, I have been listening to a performance I taped in 2005 of Tobias Picker’s opera An American Tragedy, which is based on the Dreiser novel.
The opera is not available for sale in any format: CD or digital.
I found one or two excerpts on YouTube.
The opera got generally favorable (some very much so, some lukewarm) reviews.
It premiered in 2005 at the Metropolitan Opera. There was a follow up production in 2014 by the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, NY of a revised version (by Picker) of the opera.
I attended both the 2005 (Met Opera) and the 2014 (Glimmerglass) productions. I did not think the revised version was an improvement — I could not see the logic behind it — and noted that some of the best sections had been eliminated.
I offered to share my taped version with a very few Dreiser scholars. One was very appreciative. Others, English professors, said they had no interest in opera.
I am not an opera connoisseur. The work is uneven, I would say. But there is much beautiful music, some exquisite passages: for example the opening duet between the young Clyde and his mother, the hymn, and the scene where the libretto is based on Roberta Alden’s letters.
Picker’s opera seems to have been overlooked. I am sure that the fact of there being no available recording has to do with the Dreiser Trust.
Aunt Molly Jackson (1880-1960) was an influential American folk singer and union activist. Her full name was Mary Magdalene Garland Stewart Jackson Stamos.
She was the wife of coal miner Jim Stewart, who was killed in a mine accident in 1917; shortly afterwards, she married the miner Bill Jackson. Her father and a brother were blinded in another mine accident.
Only one recording by Aunt Molly was released in her lifetime: “Kentucky Miner’s Wife (Ragged Hungry Blues),” recorded in New York City on December 10, 1931; it is posted here.
Writers Group Visits Appalachia to Report on Mining Conditions
The Dreiser Committee was a self-appointed group of left-leaning writers who came from the north to witness the desperate situation of striking Kentucky miners in November 1931, when the Communist-led National Miners Union rivaled the United Mine Workers of America for a dominant union role.
Officially calling themselves the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, the writers (including Theodore Dreiser, Lewis Mumford, John Dos Passos, and Sherwood Anderson) listened to various members of the mining communities—the oppressed—in order to learn about this vivid example of class warfare, and place it in the context of international class struggle.
In front of the group, on November 7, 1931, at a church in Bell County, Kentucky, appeared Aunt Molly Jackson to provide testimony about the tragic living conditions of her fellow Appalachian workers. She told the Dreiser Committee:
The people in this country are destitute of anything that is really nourishing to the body. That is the truth. Even the babies have lost their lives, and we have buried from four to seven a week all along during the warm weather (Harlan Miners Speak 279).
Then Jackson performed a song she had composed recently called “Kentucky Miner’s Wife (Ragged Hungry Blues).”
Dreiser’s group was so captivated by Jackson’s song that they included the lyrics at the very beginning of their published report, Harlan Miners Speak. Additionally, they invited Jackson to New York City to sing her song and speak about the miners’ plight.
Jackson was a compelling symbol of her neighbors’ struggle: an aging miner’s wife, gaunt but fierce, who had lost many friends and family members in the mines, and, most importantly, who possessed the will and the voice to tell about it.
To the Dreiser Committee, perhaps shamed by what they perceived as their own bourgeois intellectual backgrounds, Jackson represented the “real” thing, the “authentic” character and voice of the people. Moreover, she was a creative font burgeoning with songs and stories—many probably embellished or stolen, but “authentic” nonetheless. New York intellectuals would soon embrace her for this very reason.
Composed by Dreiser’s brother Paul Dresser (1857-1906), “On the Banks of the Wabash” became the Indiana state song. Theodore Dreiser claimed to have written part of the lyrics himself. For a discussion of this, see On the Banks of the Wabash: The Life and Music of Paul Dresser by Clayton W. Henderson (Indiana Historical Society Press, 2003). See also “’On the Banks of the Wabash’: A Musical Whodunit” by Richard W. Dowell in Indiana Magazine of History 66 (June 1970) and “Collaborating on ‘The Banks of the Wabash’: A Brief History of an Interdisciplinary Debate, Some New Evidence, and a Reflexive Consideration of Turf and Ownership” by Carol S. Loranger and Dennis Loranger in Dreiser Studies 30.1 (1999).
“On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away”
Round my Indiana homestead wave the cornfields,
In the distance loom the woodlands clear and cool.
Oftentimes my thoughts revert to scenes of childhood,
Where I first received my lessons, nature’s school.
But one thing there is missing from the picture,
Without her face it seems so incomplete.
I long to see my mother in the doorway,
As she stood there years ago, her boy to greet.
Oh, the moonlight’s fair tonight along the Wabash,
From the fields there comes the breath of newmown hay.
Through the sycamores the candle lights are gleaming,
On the banks of the Wabash, far away.
Many years have passed since I strolled by the river,
Arm in arm, with sweetheart Mary by my side,
It was there I tried to tell her that I loved her,
It was there I begged of her to be my bride.
Long years have passed since I strolled thro’ the churchyard.
She’s sleeping there, my angel, Mary dear,
I loved her, but she thought I didn’t mean it,
Still I’d give my future were she only here.
“My Gal Sal; or, They Called Her Frivolous Sal” (1905)
Composed by Dreiser’s brother Paul Dresser, this song did not become a hit until after Paul Dresser’s death in 1906. The song is about Annie Brace (alias Sallie Walker), an Evansville, Indiana madam who was Paul Dresser’s paramour. “My Gal Sal” is also the title of a 1942 film produced by Twentieth Century-Fox that was based on Paul Dresser’s life and which draws loosely on Theodore Dreiser’s affectionate memoir “My Brother Paul” in his Twelve Men.
“My Gal Sal.” Composed by Paul Dresser. Performed by Joan Morris, mezzo; William Bolcom, piano. From the album “Moonlight Bay” (Albany Records, catalogue # TROY318). Used with permission of Albany Records.
“My Gal Sal; or, They Called Her Frivolous Sal”
Everything is over and I’m feeling bad
I lost the best pal that I ever had
‘Tis but a fortnight since she was here
Seems like she’s gone tho’, for twenty years
Oh, how I miss her, my old pal
Oh, how I’d kiss her, My Gal Sal
Face not so handsome, but eyes don’t you know
That shone just as bright as they did years ago.
They called her frivolous Sal
A peculiar sort of a gal
With a heart that was mellow
An all ’round good fellow, was my old pal
Your troubles, sorrow and care
She was always willing to share
A wild sort of devil, but dead on the level
Was My Gal Sal.
Brought her little dainties just afore she died
Promised she would meet me on the other side
Told her how I love her, she said, “I know Jim
Just do your best, leave the rest to Him.”
Gently I pressed her to my breast
Soon she would take her last, long rest
She looked at me and murmured, “Pal.”
And softly I whispered “Goodbye, Sal.”