Zion's Walls: Aaron Copland and an American Hymn

Aaron Copland is regarded today as the composer who, perhaps more than any other, established a uniquely American voice in the concert hall. In the 1920s and 30s, having found the heritage of serious composition in the United States lacking, he turned instead to the rich wellspring of American folk music. This included what Copland termed “local color,” the distinctive sounds from various regions of the Americas. His popular Americana works of the 1930s and 40s incorporated these ideas from the flavor of a Mexican dance hall to the foot-stomping cowboy music of the West. In addition to the sounds of local color, Copland’s work drew inspiration from folk songs themselves. One particular folk song that he used in several works was a Southern revival song, “Zion’s Walls.” Originating at camp meetings in Georgia, it was notated and published in 1855 by John G. McCurry and became part of the shape note tradition of Southern folk hymnody. Shape note music could trace its origins to some of America’s earliest composers, before it was driven from New England in the early nineteenth century during a wave of musical reform. This uniquely American style of music making was preserved in Appalachia and the South, and the associated tunebooks documented what would only later be recognized as a trove of distinctly American music. In the 1930s, the work of George Pullen Jackson began to shed light on this unusual music that had been long forgotten by the musical establishment. That timing coincided with Copland’s search for American material to use in his compositions. He found “Zion’s Walls” reprinted in Jackson’s 1939 book Down-East Spirituals and intended to use the tune as early as the mid-1940s. However, that ambition would not be realized until his second set of Old American Songs (1952) and his opera The Tender Land (1954). Subsequently, the distinctive qualities of shape note music have become a source of inspiration to numerous other American composers. Other than the work of musicologists Kassandra Hartford, who traced the ten-year genesis of Old American Songs, and Elizabeth Crist, who analyzed the musical structure of “The Promise of Living” from The Tender Land, Copland’s use of “Zion’s Walls” has generally only received a brief mention in the literature. The intention of this study is to begin to fill that gap by tracing the history of the tune, analyzing the features that made it both unique and typical of shape note music, and noting the evolution of the tune through changes made by Jackson and eventually Copland. Most importantly, an in-depth study of Copland and his relationship to one folk song in particular can further illuminate his relationship to American music in general. That relationship was one of the central concerns of Aaron Copland’s life and work, and it is that relationship that secured his place as one of the foremost composers of American music.



Work Title Zion's Walls: Aaron Copland and an American Hymn
Open Access
  1. Margaret Pedlow Smith
  1. Zion's Walls
  2. The Tender Land
  3. Old American Songs
  4. Shape Note
  5. The Social Harp
  6. Aaron Copland
License CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 (Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike)
Work Type Masters Thesis
Deposited April 16, 2020




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