Bill Stepp, Aaron Copland, and “Bonaparte’s Retreat”

Image of Napoleon

This print from the Library of Congress French Political Cartoon Collection shows Bonaparte’s Retreat. It compares Napoleon to Julius Caesar, and shows him saying, “I came, I saw, I fled.”

Over the years since its founding in 1928 as the Archive of American Folk Song, the American Folklife Center archive has been explored by a wide range of artists seeking inspiration for their own works.  Through their creations, AFC archival materials have often found their way into popular culture.  From time to time on Folklife Today, we’ll tell stories about individual collection items and their connections to the wider world of American creativity.

One of the best-known pieces from the archive is a distinctive version of the fiddle tune “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” recorded by Alan and Elizabeth Lomax in Salyersville, Kentucky, in 1937. According to the American Folklife Center’s founding director, Alan Jabbour, “Bonaparte’s Retreat” is probably Irish in origin, and was used for ballads about Napoleon’s defeat and exile.  Samuel Bayard further tells us it was used as a military march during the Civil War. By the Lomaxes’ time it was a common slow dance tune, but the musician they recorded that day in Salyersville, William Hamilton Stepp, played it very differently from other renditions. In particular, he almost doubled the tempo of the tune, transforming it from a 4/4 march to a reel or hoedown. He also altered the rhythm enough to make the melody sound different from typical performances.

To get a sense of the differences involved, use the player below to hear a more conventional version of “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” recorded from the Virginia fiddler Henry Reed by Alan Jabbour.

Now listen to Stepp’s version of the tune, below.  Notice his fierce bowing, his rich drones, and his sense of humor as he exclaims to the astonished collectors: “That’s the bony part!”

DeMille and Copland

In 1976, almost 35 years after they collaborated on “Rodeo,” Aaron Copland and Agnes De Mille posed for this photo together in Banff. Photograph by Ron Adlington. Library of Congress Music Division Aaron Copland Collection. Used by permission of The Aaron Copland Fund for Music, Inc., 254 West 31st Street, 15th floor, New York, NY 10001

If Stepp’s rollicking reel rings a bell, it’s probably because it was the basis for one of the most famous pieces of American classical music ever composed, the “Hoe-Down” section of the ballet Rodeo. Composer Aaron Copland, who was commissioned by choreographer Agnes De Mille to score the ballet in 1942, probably did not hear the original field recording before adapting it. Instead, he likely learned the tune from the book Our Singing Country (1941), which presented transcriptions of John and Alan Lomax’s field recordings prepared by the composer and musicologist Ruth Crawford Seeger. According to Jabbour, “when Aaron Copland was looking for a suitable musical theme for the ‘Hoedown’ section of his ballet Rodeo (first produced in 1942), his eye was caught by the version in the Lomax book, and he adopted it almost [note] for note as the principal theme.” (It wasn’t the first time Copland had adapted material found on the archive’s field recordings; in his book The Beautiful Music All Around Us, scholar Stephen Wade points out that a theme from Copland’s 1938 score for Billy the Kid incorporates “Goodbye Old Paint,” learned from sheet music partly based on a performance by Jess Morris for John A. Lomax, while an anecdote in John Szwed’s biography of Alan Lomax makes it clear that Copland had listened to many of the archive’s recordings of “John Henry” prior to scoring his own version in 1940.)

Since its incorporation into Rodeo, the beloved “Hoe-Down” has been performed primarily as part of the symphonic suite Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo, which Copland extracted from the ballet shortly after its premiere. In the latter form, it was first performed in 1943 by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, and it remains a staple of many orchestras to this day. Rock fans might know the 1972 version of “Hoedown” played on electronic keyboards, bass, and drums by Emerson, Lake and Palmer; this was based on Copland’s arrangement, and brought the piece even greater fame, reaching number five in the Billboard charts as part of the album Trilogy. And if you have only a casual interest in classical or pop music, you may still know Copland’s arrangement from a series of TV commercials for beef, which have aired off and on since 1992, with the slogan “Beef—it’s what’s for dinner!”

Two details from the dust jacket to the Lomaxes' recording of William Hamilton Stepp.  Note that Elizabeth Lomax erroneously called the fiddler "W.M. Stepp," an error that has been reproduced many times over the years.

Two details from the dust jacket to the Lomaxes’ recording of William Hamilton Stepp. Note that Elizabeth Lomax erroneously called the fiddler “W.M. Stepp,” an error that has been reproduced many times over the years.

The widespread success of “Bonaparte’s Retreat” in classical and pop music must obviously be credited partly to Copland’s genius as a composer and an arranger; nowhere in folk music will you hear a tune played on forty violins and a xylophone! Its success is also often seen as a testament to the vision of the Lomaxes, who sought out the tune, recorded it, recognized its distinctive charm, and chose it for inclusion in their book. The Library of Congress has large collections associated with both Copland and the Lomax family, and we’re proud to be an important source of information on them.

Still, for this bit of music history, I think we owe the greatest debt to William Hamilton Stepp, the fiddler whose artistry turned the tune from a sad retreat march to a fierce and fiery dance. Stepp, whose family was so poor he literally lived in a cave until he was five, grew up to be a farmer and fiddler in Kentucky and Indiana. He was a complex man whose story is explored more deeply in Wade’s book, but most of all, he was, in the words of his grandson, “a dedicated musician.”  No other fiddler we know of played the tune quite that way, and no other version could possibly be the basis of Copland’s composition.  As Wade points out in his account, “even with tympani and horns, reeds and brass, a xylophone and wood blocks, swirling in philharmonic majesty, we’re hearing Bill Stepp.”

(Note: this post was expanded from a few paragraphs I wrote for Folklife Center News in 2011.)

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