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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."

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

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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.)

Comments (11)

  1. Thanks, Steve, for a terrific piece on Bill Stepp, Aaron Copland, and “Bonaparte’s Retreat.”

  2. A great comparison between the two “Bonaparte’s Retreat.I’m sure a lot of people will recognize the Copeland version. What other folk songs have been adapted for modern use?

    • Thanks for reading it! In the notice at the bottom of the post, stating that I adapted the text from Folklife Center News, follow the link on the title. It will take you to an issue of the newsletter discussing fourteen examples of modern takes on AFC field recordings, including Feist’s “Sea Lion Woman,” Moby’s “Natural Blues,” and The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun.”

  3. Michael Nesmith and his band the Second National Band also covered this song on his 1972 album ‘Tantamount to Treason, Vol. 1’. Gave it a country/pop variation to it.

  4. I remember reading somewhere, that what Copland heard from a recording at the Library of Congress and what he used for Hoedown, was called Napoleon’s Bony Part. I would think that it was a complete original by Steppe, rather than a take on Napoleon’s Retreat. What do you think? Napoleon’s Retreat sounds completely different.

    • Thanks for your comment, Rock Drumr.

      All the musicologists and folklorists, then and now, including Alan Lomax, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Alan Jabbour, and Stephen Wade, recognize that what Stepp played was a very personal version of “Bonaparte’s Retreat.” Partly that’s because they had many more versions to listen to than I was able to present here! So, as you can see from the illustrations in the blog post, Lomax called it “Bonaparte’s Retreat” on the disc sleeve. It’s also called “Bonaparte’s Retreat” in our card catalog, so if Copland heard it, he would have asked for it or been offered it under that title.

      It is true, however, that Stepp exclaims on the recording “That’s the Bony Part!” And when printing Ruth Crawford Seeger’s transcription in “Our Singing Country,” Lomax decided to give the title local color by using Stepp’s pronunciation and calling it “Bonyparte.” (However, he noted in the headnote that it is a version of “Bonaparte’s Retreat.”) So whoever wrote the piece you read was probably confused by the whimsical title in the book and thought that’s what the recording had been called as well.

      We don’t know for sure that Copland ever heard the recording, by the way. He did hear some Lomax recordings, because we have notes from a meeting between Copland and Alan Lomax at which Lomax played him recordings. And Bess Lomax Hawes, Alan’s sister, recalled a different occasion at which Copland visited the archive and listened to recordings at about the right time, but didn’t say if “Bonaparte” was among them. But we know he must have seen the Lomaxes’ book Our Singing Country, which had Ruth Crawford Seeger’s transcription of the tune, because he also included two other tunes from that book in Rodeo. According to his biographers, he preferred working from transcriptions when setting folk music anyway, so even if he heard the disc he would have used the transcription as his main source.

      Since we placed this blog post online, the rest of the Kentucky recordings have gone online. Listen to Asher Boyd’s recording of “Bonaparte’s Retreat” at this link, and I think you’ll be able to tell it’s a version of the same tune that Stepp was playing, although it’s still clear that Copland used Stepp’s version in particular.

  5. Interesting thought. Assumes that Virginian Henry Reed was playing some sort of definitive version of the tune that actually originated in Scotland and migrated through Ireland and Wales to the Appalachian regions of southern States of the Union. Strangely enough, William Hamilton Stepp’s version was completely familiar to people in Scotland and Ireland under the name of this tune well before his grandparents were born.

    (Some historians say it was written by Scots piper mercenaries in Napoleon’s Army, while others have traced it to various pubs around Dublin in the same era. Such tunes were passed along by ear, rarely in written form. [Find your own references, they abound.])

  6. That’s all very interesting, but that’s not the tune that I (and, I suspect, many others) know as Bonaparte’s retreat. A fellow band member brought it to my attention via a YouTube recording. I’m having a great deal of difficulty tracking down an ABC code transcription so we can add it to our repertoire. There are two versions that I can find, niether of which is this one. Is there an alternative title (as we all know different tunes same title, same tune different titles is a frequent occurrence in the trad world). FWIW, this is the tune I know …

    • Thanks Phill,

      The tune Aly is playing is indeed considered a version of the “same tune” as the one Stepp plays, which shows you how subjective these things are. As Rock Drumr stated already, Stepp’s tune does sound different. As I stated in the original post:

      In particular, [Stepp] 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.

      And as I stated in my reply to Rock Drumr:

      All the musicologists and folklorists, then and now, including Alan Lomax, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Alan Jabbour, and Stephen Wade, recognize that what Stepp played was a very personal version of “Bonaparte’s Retreat.”

  7. This is fascinating. How was copyright handled in this case? Whether he got the material from Our Singing Country or a recording, Copland was directly quoting an extended passage of Stepp’s work, and possibly the Lomax’s (the book has a big old copyright notice).

    • I don’t know but I’ll see if I can look into it. The melody itself was in the public domain, so Stepp contributed primarily characteristic speed and rhythm. I’m not sure if this alone was enough to protect the piece against a new orchestration based on a transcription of his performance.

      Lomax himself wasn’t litigious about this kind of thing. The copyright notice was absolutely necessary because the books were not being published by the Library of Congress but by private publishers. It was publishing deals and grants that mostly funded John and Alan’s work; the Library supplied equipment and a salary for Alan for a few years (but not for John). The publishers, who were paying most of John’s way, wouldn’t publish a book without copyright notice because anyone else could then pirate the whole book. But the Lomaxes’ goal in publishing the books was never to force musicians to pay them for folk music. Lomax’s transcriptions sometimes became the subjects of legal action, but it was only when a lot of money was at stake and Lomax felt that his sources could make something out of the action; so there were lawsuits on “Tom Dooley,” the biggest hit of 1958-1959, which benefited Frank Proffitt and the Warners and the Lomaxes, and settlements involving “O Brother Where Art Thou” and Moby’s “Play” which benefited the sources whose music was used. But in the vast majority of cases where someone recorded a song they learned from these books, the Lomaxes were fine with it.

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