Dutch composer Johan de Meij (b. 1953) studied trombone and conducting at the Royal Conservatory of Music in The Hague. He now resides in the New York City area. He rose to international fame as a composer with his Symphony no. 1 “The Lord of the Rings”. Written between 1984 and 1987, it was premiered in Brussels, Belgium in 1988. It went on to win first prize in the Sudler International Wind Band Composition Competition in 1989, and a Dutch Composers Fund award in 1990, and has since become a cornerstone of the repertoire for high-level bands worldwide. His subsequent compositions have also won numerous awards. He remains active as a composer, euphonium and trombone player, and guest conductor of ensembles on five continents.
Songs from the Catskills was completed on St. Patrick’s Day, 2011. De Meij provides his own program notes:
The Catskill Mountains is a beautifully preserved region in Upstate New York, flanked to the east by the Hudson River. From the moment my wife and I settled in 2008 in Saugerties, a quaint Hudson Valley town 100 miles north of Manhattan, I started immersing myself into the area’s rich musical history. Discovering a fascinating mix of American, Irish and Scottish folk music, ultimately, it was not easy to choose from such abundance. I ended up using the following six songs:
* The Foggy Dew – is of Irish origin, but was adopted with another text into the local folk song repertoire;
* Last Winter was a Hard One – tells the story of two Irish immigrant women who complain that their husbands can not find work, and that ‘Those Italians’ steal their jobs;
* A Poor and Foreign Stranger – a gorgeous, heart-breaking ballad;
* The Bluestone Quarries – describes the hard work in the nineteenth-century stone quarries. This song is very similar to When Johnny Comes Marching Home;
* The Arkansas Traveler – made famous by folk singer Pete Seeger (If I Had a Hammer) The music makes a side trip to The Old Tobacco Box before coming to a festive conclusion.
Songs from the Catskills was commissioned by Concordia College (Moorhead, MN) and Scott A. Jones, Director of Bands, for its 2011 Honor Band Weekend. In April 2011, the work was premiered during this event, conducted by the composer.
The work is dedicated to Marilyn and Travis Rothlein, our dear friends and neighbors in the Catskills.
Website for Johan de Meij and his publishing company. Includes an extensive bio and works list, as well as a link to the above program notes. Also check out de Meij’s Facebook fan page and his Wikipedia entry, or follow him on Twitter.
The composer leads a performance of the full piece:
Now to dig into those folk songs: the first, The Foggy Dew, comes with several different texts attached. A British version is about a young man trying to woo a serving girl. The Irish version, featured in the video below, depicts a scene from the Easter Uprising of 1916 (lyrics are in the video description). Several more versions are collected here, including several different love stories, one of which has to do with the Bogle Bo (boogeyman). Here it is as performed by Sinead O’Connor and the Chieftains:
Last Winter Was a Hard One doesn’t have any play that I can find on YouTube. Perhaps that’s not surprising, given that, as de Meij says, it curses out “Those Italians” that steal Irish immigrants’ jobs. Read the lyrics, see the melody, and listen to an excerpt here.
A Poor and Foreign Stranger also has a life as A Poor Wayfaring Stranger. Here, Peter Hollens and the Swingle Singers put on a very contemporary a cappella version of it that leaves the melody and the lyrics largely untouched:
For a more authentic, unadorned take, listen to Burl Ives:
The tune that de Meij calls Bluestone Quarries is also known as Pat Works on the Railway. The lyrics differ only in the nature of the backbreaking labor that the young Irishman is engaging in. Listen to a performance of the Railway version below:
The Arkansas Traveler used to be Arkansas’s state song. It’s famous now as both a fiddle tune and the children’s classic My Baby Bumblebee. It was used to lampoon country yokels in several Looney Tunes cartoons. Watch Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys perform it:
The Old Tobacco Box, or There Was an Old Soldier probably dates from the Civil War era, given the wooden leg of its soldier protagonist. It can be sung to the tune of Turkey in the Straw, but has its own tune that matches another called The Red Haired Boy: