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Down in the Valley: An Appreciation

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by Mark N. Grant

The Great Depression of the 1930s kindled among many artists a romance with rural Americana that carried over into the 1940s in every medium–from the documentary films of Pare Lorentz to Roy Harris’s symphonies, from Carl Sandburg’s poems to Agnes de Mille’s ballets, from the photographs of Walker Evans to the paintings of Grandma Moses to John Steinbeck’s farmworker novels. The Broadway audience, too, was drawn into this celebration of hillbilly iconography. The scandalous stage version of Tobacco Road ran from 1933 to 1941, setting the all-time long-run record for a nonmusical show (until Life with Father). Then came Oklahoma! in 1943. Two more such shows hit Broadway in the 1944-1945 season. Sing Out, Sweet Land, a revue billed as “A Salute to American Folk and Popular Music,” featured American folk songs linked by continuity music in the “folk manner” composed by Elie Siegmeister. Dark of the Moon, a weird tale of witchcraft and Smoky Mountain people, similarly made use of folkish tunes and continuity music composed by Walter Hendl, built around the traditional ballad “Barbara Allen.”

While Kurt Weill was probably aware of both shows, an advertising executive named Charles McArthur surely was. McArthur hatched the idea of producing musical plays for radio built around American folk tunes, and he turned for help to New York Times music critic Olin Downes, who had co-authored Elie Siegmeister’s 1943 book A Treasury of American Song (which Weill owned). McArthur and Downes formed a production company, Frontiers Unlimited, for the series (working title: “Your Songs, America”), but they had trouble finding a composer. Then orchestra contractor Morris Stonzek introduced Downes to Weill, who quickly warmed to the idea; after all, his previous encounter with ballad opera–John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera–had made him famous, and he was an enthusiastic student of American folk music. Weill couldn’t convince any of his usual collaborators to write a libretto, so Stonzek and well-known conductor Lehman Engel suggested Arnold Sundgaard (1909-2006), who had already had two plays produced on Broadway and had co-written the book for the Fritz Kreisler operetta Rhapsody produced on Broadway the preceding season. He had studied playwriting with Eugene O’Neill’s teacher George Pierce Baker at Yale Drama School. His 70-character play about syphilis, Spirochete, created a sensation in 1938 as a Federal Theatre Living Newspaper production. Sundgaard’s long and varied career included teaching and writing children’s books, and he wrote librettos for Douglas Moore and Alec Wilder.

“When I had lived in the mountains of Virginia in 1939-40,” Sundgaard recalled late in life, “among the songs I heard was ‘Down in the Valley.’ I felt that song suggested the kind of story we could write.” The song–a traditional Ozark ballad about a condemned prisoner and the woman he loves, set to a deceptively serene tune–first appeared in print collections in the 1910s. It also appeared under the titles “Bird in a Cage,” “Birmingham Jail,” and “Down on the Levee.” The lyrics varied from version to version, but the following composite gives a good idea of the raw material from which Sundgaard constructed the plot:

Down in the valley, valley so low
Hang your head over, hear the train blow
Hear the train blow, love, hear the train blow;
Late in the evening, hear the train blow.

Build me a castle, build it so high,
So I can see my true love go by,
See her go by, love, see her go by,
So I can see my true love go by.

Write me a letter, send it by mail;
Bake it and stamp it to the Birmingham jail,
Write me a letter containing three lines
Answer my question, will you be mine?

Roses are red, love, violets are blue;
God and his angels know I love you,
Roses love sunshine, violets love dew
Angels in heaven, know I love you.

Weill was enthusiastic about Sundgaard’s suggestion of “Down in the Valley” and began looking for other folk songs for their radio opera. He found “The Lonesome Dove,” “Little Black Train,” and “Hop Up, My Ladies” in his own collection of songbooks. Sundgaard set about revising the songs’ traditional lyrics, adapting them to the plot. By November 1945, Weill and Sundgaard had completed a 25-minute work which they began trying out for potential backers–Weill playing the piano and singing, Sundgaard doing the speaking roles–without success. Then Weill orchestrated it and an audition tape conducted by Maurice Abravanel was recorded. That didn’t inspire any backers either, and the production company was disbanded.

In September 1947, Weill’s old European publisher Hans Heinsheimer, now at Schirmer, invited Weill to write an opera for students, and Hans Busch (son of Fritz, who had conducted Weill’s first opera, Der Protagonist, in 1926) said he’d be willing to produce such a work with his students at Indiana University. Weill asked Sundgaard to return to Down in the Valley and adapt it as a theater piece, adding underscoring for the dialogue and two new songs, “Where is the one who will mourn me when I’m gone?” and “Brack Weaver, My True Love,” both of which anticipate the style of his 1949 musical Lost in the Stars. With a slightly changed orchestration, Down in the Valley received its stage premiere July 15, 1948 at the University of Indiana in Bloomington; Alan Jay Lerner’s wife Marion Bell took the role of Jennie (Lerner was working with Weill on Love Life at the time). NBC Radio broadcast a performance from the University of Michigan on August 7, 1948, and within a year some 80 performances were staged by colleges and amateurs around the country. The first professional production in New York was given by the Lemonade Opera on July 6, 1949 with two pianos (three years later, Tony Randall directed a production starring Eva Marie Saint at the city’s Provincetown Playhouse with single piano accompaniment). On January 14, 1950 the NBC Opera Theater broadcast a television version. Two recordings were made almost simultaneously, one by RCA with the NBC Opera Theater cast, the other by Decca with Alfred Drake conducted by Maurice Levine (who also conducted Lost in the Stars). Hundreds more productions followed; Down in the Valley became Weill’s most performed American stage work.

Harold Clurman and Elia Kazan always marveled at Weill’s uncanny ability to out-native the natives in his music. And although it has a few echt-European recitatives and neo-Verdian passages, Down in the Valley succeeds strikingly in capturing an American rustic sound, without faux Coplandisms. (On the other hand, Sundgaard’s Brack Weaver-Bouché plot parallels with Curly and Jud Fry in Oklahoma! are a little too close for comfort.) Weill’s vocal arrangements are ingeniously pictorial throughout; for instance, the women’s undulating perfect fourths in measures 51-56 palpably evoke the wind blowing. The use of the song leader as narrator presages Lost in the Stars; indeed, there’s a certain kinship of sentimentality and musical style between the two stage works–“Big Mole” from Lost in the Stars has a lilting rhythm and bass line similar to “Hop Up, My Ladies.” And there’s even a buried kinship with certain Weill-Brecht motifs: the Birmingham jail setting faintly hints at the Alabama of Mahagonny; the gallows ending, Dreigroschenoper; and the nom de femme fatale of Jenny familiar from DreigroschenoperMahagonny, and Lady in the Dark appears here yet again as “Jennie.”

Down in the Valley bears a superficial resemblance to an opera for students that Weill wrote in Germany, Der Jasager (1930), but the musical styles of the two works differ considerably. In this American folk opera, a short, eminently performable 35-minute work, the composer sought sheer lyricism in melody, harmony, choral writing, and orchestration more unabashedly than perhaps anywhere else in his oeuvre. It is, simply put, one of Weill’s most beautiful scores.

Mark N. Grant in 2006 became the first composer to receive the Friedheim Award since the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award program ended in 1993. He has written music for both the concert hall and opera/music theater and is also the author of two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award-winning books, The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical (2004) and Maestros of the Pen: A History of Classical Music Criticism in America (1998).

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