September 29, 2020

Behind the Music: Zion’s Walls

Zion’s Walls, this coming Sunday’s virtual anthem sung by the St. John’s choir, is Aaron Copland’s arrangement of an American revivalist song. The words and music were originally written by John G. McCurry (1821 – 1886), a Georgia farmer who published The Social Harp, a collection of 222 folk songs.

The subject matter for Zion’s Walls was drawn from several sources, not all uniquely American—politics, religion, children, love and loss, death, and the minstrel stage.

Copland used this song in his opera, The Tender Land (1952-1954). Copland also included the song in a collection titled Old American Songs, which was commissioned by Benjamin Brittan for a music festival in England.

By the time the Old American Songs were arranged and compiled in 1952, much of America’s innocence was beginning to fade. The cold war was raging, and Copland found the environment stifling to his compositional process. The simplicity of these songs, coupled with Copland’s sensitive treatment of them, seems to point to the composer’s desire to return to a less complicated time.

Come fathers and mothers,
Come sisters and brothers,
Come join us in singing the praises of Zion.
O fathers, don’t you feel determined
To meet within the walls of Zion?
We’ll shout and go round
The walls of Zion.

Special thanks to Mike Norris, St. John’s Music Assistant, for researching and sharing this information about Sunday’s worship music.

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