Black is the Color

TEXT
Black is the Color
Black black black is the color of my true love's hair
His lips are something rosy fair
The sweetest smile and the kindest hands
I love the grass whereon he stands
 
I love my love and well he knows
I love the grass whereon he goes
If he no more on earth will be
'Twill surely be the end of me

As is often the case with folk songs, the source of Black is the color is disputed. It is generally regarded as an Appalachian folk tune, though some scholars have traced the roots of both its text and tune back to British 18thcentury ballads. The folk song specialist John Jacob Niles is widely credited with "discovering" and popularizing it in the early 20th-century. However, in the Introduction to a collection of his songs, Niles claims to have actually composed its famous melody: "In the case of Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair…the text is indeed in the public domain, but the tune (which is the tune now employed wherever the song is sung) was composed by me, because I felt that the traditional one, dull beyond belief, was unworthy of that fine text." Roy Harris, George Crumb and Luciano Berio all regarded the melody to be of Appalachian origin. Whatever its source, it is a supremely beautiful song, one of the treasures of the literature.


John Jacob Niles

Performer and production credits:
Karol Bennett, soprano; Leone Buyse, flute; Hannah Holman, cello; Susan Oltsman Koozin, narrator; Tricia Park, violin; Rod Waters, piano; Michael Webster, clarinet; Blake Wilkins, percussion.
Bill Klemm, videographer and editor; Kate Dawson, director.


John Jacob Niles' setting for voice and piano is the most straightforward and "authentic" of this group of arrangements. Nevertheless, Niles' setting is not plain: The melody is accompanied by a rich progression of harmonies that color each word of the text very poignantly. Niles' setting offers a point of reference against which we compare the more elaborate and personal settings of Crumb, Harris and Berio.

American composer John Jacob Niles (1892-1980) was born in Kentucky into a musical family. From an early age, he began collecting, transcribing and publishing folk songs. He became an accomplished balladeer, much in demand as a performer and recording artist. In the 1950s, he began to write more extended concert works. However, he is best known for his ballads and folk arrangements: He is widely recognized as a pioneer and champion of indigenous American song.

Featured Work Other Recommended Works
Black is the color "The John Jacob Niles" collection, Gifthorse - Records G410008 The Hangman and I Wonder as I Wander from the same album

George Crumb

Performer and production credits:
Karol Bennett, soprano; Leone Buyse, flute; Hannah Holman, cello; Susan Oltsman Koozin, narrator; Tricia Park, violin; Rod Waters, piano; Michael Webster, clarinet; Blake Wilkins, percussion.
Bill Klemm, videographer and editor; Kate Dawson, director.


George Crumb's setting of Black is the color is drawn from a set of Appalachian Folk songs titled Unto the Hills that Crumb arranged for his daughter Ann, an actress and singer. It was originally scored for soprano, amplified piano and four percussionists. Crumb writes about the work: "In confronting these songs head on, so to speak, I determined to leave the beautiful melodies intact…since one could not hope to "improve" on their pristine perfection." Crumb and his daughter chose from among several versions of the song. As a result, Crumb's melody differs slightly from that used by Niles, Harris and Berio, though it is still very recognizable. Crumb accompanies the voice with exotic and imaginative sounds: the percussion uses includes cymbals, chimes, and bass drum. He writes further: "I have attempted to bring out the psychological depth and mysticism…inherent in Appalachian folklore." Crumb's colorful soundscape is rescored for the Musiqa program by Anthony Brandt

Born in Charleston, West Virginia, composer George Crumb (b. 1929) is one of the most influential and revered living American composers. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1968, and a Grammy Award in 2001. From his official web-site: "George Crumb's music often juxtaposes contrasting musical styles. The references range from music of the western art-music tradition, to hymns and folk music, to non-Western music. Many of Crumb's works include programmatic, symbolic, mystical and theatrical elements, which are often reflected in his beautiful and meticulously notated scores. A shy, yet warmly eloquent personality, Crumb retired from his teaching position at the University of Pennsylvania after more than 30 years of service. [He has been] awarded honorary doctorates by numerous universities and the recipient of dozens of awards and prizes," Crumb has been married for fifty years, and has three children.

Featured Work Other Recommended Works
Unto the Hills - Bridge 9139 Voice of the Whale - Black Box BBM 1076
  Ancient Voices of Children - CRI803

Roy Harris

Performer and production credits:
Karol Bennett, soprano; Leone Buyse, flute; Hannah Holman, cello; Susan Oltsman Koozin, narrator; Tricia Park, violin; Rod Waters, piano; Michael Webster, clarinet; Blake Wilkins, percussion.
Bill Klemm, videographer and editor; Kate Dawson, director.


Roy Harris' American Ballads were written in 1942-45 for his wife, a noted pianist. In his short version for solo piano, fragments of Black is the color appear as if out of the mists, then recede into a haze of piano chords. The result is a tender and meditative reflection on the song.

American composer Roy Harris (1898-1979) was born in Oklahoma. He was a truck driver for several years in his youth, but then found his way to Paris, where he studied with Nadia Boulanger, one of the great composition teachers of the 20th-century. A prolific composer, his music always remained rooted in a sense of American folk heritage. He also encouraged the dissemination of American music: He hosted a radio show in the 1930's called "Let's Make Music," and remained involved in broadcasting into the 1950's.

Featured Work Other Recommended Works
American Ballads for Piano - Albany 105 Third Symphony - Sony 60594

Rob Smith

Performer and production credits:
Karol Bennett, soprano; Leone Buyse, flute; Hannah Holman, cello; Susan Oltsman Koozin, narrator; Tricia Park, violin; Rod Waters, piano; Michael Webster, clarinet; Blake Wilkins, percussion.
Bill Klemm, videographer and editor; Kate Dawson, director.


Rob Smith's setting of Black is the Color uses the original unaltered melody, but presents it at a much quicker tempo than it is traditionally performed. The opening notes of the melody – "Black, black, black" – are passed throughout the instruments to create much of the background accompaniment. Rapid piano figures and dense swelling chords in the strings and winds make for a lush mood, despite the fast tempo. A dreamy and more introspective atmosphere is found near the end of this passage – "and the kindest hands" – by Rob's use of loose imitation as the music gradually slows down. This arrangement was written specifically for this Musiqa program.

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