Though little studied, Aaron Copland's Old American Songs remain among his most frequently performed and best-loved pieces—and for good reason. 1 These audience-friendly, unabashedly tonal settings of familiar, folksy tunes seem in some ways the clearest manifestation of Copland's attempt to “say what [he] had to say in the simplest possible terms” and to speak directly to the American people. 2 Yet they fit uneasily in Copland's compositional trajectory and in broader histories of American music. Published in 1950 and 1954, respectively, the First and Second Sets of Old American Songs were written at a time when tonal, nationalist music had become increasingly unpopular. 3 Composers of the time were aware that folk-based compositions in particular were often fraught with political connotations: Elie Siegmeister explained that by the late 1930s, “anyone who was...

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