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Book Review: American Folk Songs for Solo Singers by Alfred Music Publishing

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I’ve been a singer for almost as long as I’ve been a writer (a long time, trust me). I honed my performance chops learning and performing the great American folk ballads like “Simple Gifts,” “Shenandoah,” and several of the other songs included in Alfred Music Publishing’s  new solo vocal collection American Folk Songs for Solo Singers. The Alfred collection includes 13 classic folk ballads arranged for piano, but also, significantly, includes anAmerican Folk Songs for Solo Singers accompaniment CD (with no vocal track), making this collection a great tool for practice and performance. 

I’ve always been my own accompanist, whether on guitar, dulcimer or just my own voice a cappella. It’s an undisciplined way of performance, and very suited to folk music—especially if you perform solo. (Perhaps I was tainted by all those elementary school and junior high school music teachers who kept telling us to “mind the meter” while singing free-spirted songs that seemed to urge us otherwise, although I’ve also always understood the value of piano acccompaniment for choral performance of even folk songs.)

Over the years I’ve come to understand the enormous value of solo vocalists learning even the simplest American folk songs with “formal” accompaniment. I’ve also learned how freeing it can be to let someone else “do the driving” while I concentrate solely on the vocal performance: interpreting and getting the most out of both my voice and the song. American Folk Songs for Solo Singers provides singers with the opportunity for both.

Alfred’s music collections had always been well known to me as an integral part of my children’s piano lessons—and for the dozens of Broadway “vocal selections” books and sheet music that line my music library shelves. But, I’d never really thought of Alfred as a publisher of folk arrangements, so I was curious about American Folk Songs for Solo Singers and how it would suit vocalists interested in performing folk music. 

Singers (yes, even old folkies like me) can learn a lot about interpretation, sight-reading, and general musicianship by working through the melodically and rhythmically-simple arrangements of the well-known folk ballads included here. The arrangements are simple enough for the singer to add layers of interpretation to the vocal line, something crucial for songs as emotive as blues selections “Nine Hundred Miles,” and “Motherless Child,” and as freewheeling as “Old Joe Clark,” and “Honey Babe.” But the creative arrangements also flesh out the ballads and spirituals to concert performance length with modulations in pitch and style, keeping them interesting, even challenging, while maintaining their essential simplicity.

American Folk Songs for Solo Singers is a fine addition to the Alfred repertoire; the songs included, as arranged by Jay Althouse, are fine additions to any vocalist’s toolbox. The book is available in two versions, arranged for either high or low vocal ranges.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.