He has lived in Austria for years, logs substantial time in London, and for most of the year lives out of a suitcase while appearing on the world’s leading opera stages and concert platforms.
Despite the peripatetic existence and long expatriate status, few artists have done as much for the cause of American song than Thomas Hampson. The celebrated baritone has recorded discs devoted to Stephen Foster, Charles Ives, Samuel Barber, settings of Whitman poetry and composers ranging from Charles Tomlinson Griffes to Deems Taylor.
In collaboration with the Library of Congress, Hampson is now embarked on an 11-city tour that charts the rich legacy of homegrown vocal music from psalm settings, hymns and spirituals to the present day. His “Song of America” tour comes to the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach Sunday evening.
Speaking from London, Hampson’s enthusiasm for American song remains palpable as he speaks of the wealth and depth of our vocal heritage. The singer emphasizes that this is not a didactic or academic exercise, but populist in the best sense of the word.
“I don’t see this as a finger-wagging project or condescending,” Hampson said. “I truly believe that this celebration of the American spirit is as much in our poems and in our composers as anything in the popular medium and that they can live very happily side by side.”
The baritone’s take on this vast repertoire has evolved over several years, and he sees it as a “storyboard of American culture.” For Hampson, immersing himself in two centuries of American vocal music has made him view our tradition as a fascinating continuum.
“It’s become very clear to me that looking at American culture and especially American song, it’s more worthwhile looking at periods of development in our history than searching for our Brahms or our Schubert,” Hampson said. “If you slice off American history every 10 or 15 years you’ll be able to tell that story through the poems and through the different kinds of songs that remain.”
Hampson stressed that unlike Europe’s lied tradition, the populist element in American song was embedded in the nation’s cultural fabric from the start. “Drawing a nice clean line between popular song and concert song is just impossible,” he said.
The decade of the 1860s was a time of particular cultural ferment, with the nation headed into Civil War and Stephen Foster’s songs achieving the height of their popularity.
“You have iconoclastic composers like Stephen Foster that embody so much of the Irish, parlor, porch-singing song tradition of Robert Burns and Thomas Moore,” Hampson said.
“But at the same time, Foster sort of plants the root of American song right into the soil. Because with the minstrelsy and with the parlor songs and the ballads, we’re coming out of the English tradition and we’re going into the vaudeville tradition and the musical theater tradition.”
Hampson thinks that America’s cultural traditions are deeper and more profound than is generally credited across the pond and characterized by a firm sense of individuality and Realpolitik.
“If you look at the poets and their stories and you look at the composers and their songs, it’s people thinking about what it means to be an American and what it means to be in America or be an artist in America. All these things tie together in the song repertoire like in no other culture I know; you don’t find Brahms writing what its like to be a German,” he said.
Though the core of the program is similar, elements are altered for each city and stop. At Kravis, U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser will participate in a pre-concert roundtable and Hampson will perform a new work, A Heartland Portrait by Stephen Paulus, set to Kooser’s texts. Hampson said another reason for bringing the recital to Kravis is in part a public thank-you to Palm Beach philanthropist John Kluge, whose financial support of the Library of Congress has been instrumental in this project.
Hampson has always been in the forefront of technology to advocate vocal music and his art, from his own pioneering Web site (hampsong.com) to his ongoing collaborations with the Library of Congress. The singer is helping to create a mass database for the Library of Congress Web site, with American songs, composers and other information extensively cross-referenced. “If it’s in the public domain I think you should be able to just grab it off the Web,” Hampson said. “I think there should be a free listening library, too, and it should be streamed so people can listen and become aware of this music.”
In his view, the Internet has vast untapped potential for re-introducing America’s songs into the home in the same way that sheet music on the parlor piano served to entertain and enlighten families in the 19th century.
“It’s helping people who want to know more simply get into the music and get into the composers,” Hampson said. “When I was growing up, I checked records out of the public library and that’s how I learned about music. I think we’ve left that part of public awareness and accessibility behind. I think that was a mistake and I think new technology can just take us in leaps and bounds back into people’s homes and lives.”
Hampson will present his “Song of America” program at 8 p.m. Sunday at the Kravis Center, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Tickets are $15-$80. There will be a pre-concert discussion with Hampson, Kooser and Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. Also, Hampson will present the lecture “Creative America” at 4 p.m. Saturday at the Cohen Pavilion of the Kravis Center. Tickets are $25. Contact kravis.org, 800-572-8471 and 561-832-7469.
Lawrence A. Johnson can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4708.