The idea for an American song cycle based on indigenous folk tunes to be performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at their Gala Olympic Concert on July 27, 1984, was proposed to me by the Orchestra's principal guest conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and executive director Ernest Fleischmann. I thought the idea attractive and an extension of my previous works that were folk derived – such as American Salute, American Ballads, etc. The Los Angeles Philharmonic Association commissioned me to do such a piece; Maestro Thomas and I discussed and explored the various approaches and possible source materials utilizing four vocal soloists separately and in ensemble with the orchestra. We finally agreed on the specific songs to be used, and in April 1984 I completed and orchestrated the work.
Great day, which opens the cycle and is sung by the vocal ensemble, is one of the exuberant Black spirituals. Ox-Driving Song (bass baritone) is lusty and sardonic – a kind of western work song. Wondrous Love (mezzo-soprano) is a beautiful and touching White Southern spiritual with obvious influences from other sources. Mananitas (tenor) is one of the most popular of the Mexican/Spanish derived folk tunes which I treat with classical texture. He’s Gone Away (soprano) has a special poignancy to it. I Heard the Preaching (ensemble), another “up” spiritual is combined with the opening Great day for the grand finale of the work.
All folk tunes have many different versions and in a number of cases I adapted several variants for these particular settings. Therefore, my source materials were varied. I want to express a particular thanks to Oscar Brand, the well-known folk singer, for his help – particularly for Mananitas. I also want to credit Michael Tilson Thomas for suggesting the title, American Sing. The work is scored for the traditional symphony orchestra instrumentation.