Hyperion Records

The Plow that Broke the Plains – Suite

'Thomson: Louisiana Story – The film music of Virgil Thomson' (CDH55169)
Thomson: Louisiana Story – The film music of Virgil Thomson
MP3 £4.99FLAC £4.99ALAC £4.99Buy by post £5.50 CDH55169  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  
Part 1: Prelude: Prologue
Track 1 on CDH55169 [1'51] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Part 2: Grass: Pastorale
Track 2 on CDH55169 [1'27] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Part 3: Cattle
Track 3 on CDH55169 [3'08] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Part 4: Blues
Track 4 on CDH55169 [2'54] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Part 5: Drought
Track 5 on CDH55169 [1'00] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Part 6: Devastation
Track 6 on CDH55169 [5'42] Helios (Hyperion's budget label)

The Plow that Broke the Plains – Suite
The underlying theme of The Plow that Broke the Plains is that of American innocence and its betrayal; and Thomson is an archetypal American ‘innocent’—knowing, sophisticated, acutely intelligent but still paradoxically innocent, childlike, morning-fresh in his perception of the world. He discards post-Wagnerian hyperbole and egomania in favour of what Wilfrid Mellers called the ‘surrealistically childlike unsentimentality’ of Satie and his own grass roots, first and foremost Baptist hymnody.

In the spontaneous yet stylish way it bears and mothers popular idioms (including cowboy songs), the music of The Plow that Broke the Plains is pretty basic Thomson. The score prefaces each movement of the ‘Suite’ with an evocative superscription:

Prelude: Prologue: This is a record of land … of soil, rather than people—a story of the Great Plains. The 400,000,000 acres of wind-swept grass lands that spread up from the Texas Panhandle to Canada. A high, treeless continent, without rivers, without streams … a country of high winds, and sun … and of little rain …

Grass: Pastorale: The grass lands … a treeless wind-swept continent of grass stretching from the broad Texas Panhandle up to the mountain reaches of Montana and to the Canadian border. A country of high winds and sun … high winds and sun … without rivers, without streams, with little rain.

Cattle: First came the cattle … an unfenced range a thousand miles long … an unchartered ocean of grass, the southern range for winter grazing, and the mountain plateaus for summer. It was a cattleman’s paradise. Up from the Rio Grande … in from the rolling prairies … down clear from the eastern highways the cattle rolled into the old buffalo range. For a decade the world discovered the grass lands and poured cattle into the plains. The railroads brought markets to the edge of the plains … land syndicates sprang up overnight, and the cattle rolled into the West.

Blues: Then we reaped the golden harvest … then we really plowed the plains … we turned under millions of new acres for war. We had the manpower … we invented new machinery. The world was our market. By 1933 the old grass lands had become the new wheat lands … a hundred million acres … two hundred million acres … more wheat!?

Drought: A country without rivers … without streams … with little rain … once again the rains held off and the sun baked the earth. This time no grass held moisture against the winds and sun … this time millions of acres of plowed land lay open to the sun.

Devastation: Baked out—blown out—and broke! Year in, year out, uncomplaining, they fought the worst drought in history … their stock choked to death on the barren land … their homes were nightmares of swirling dust night and day. Many went ahead of it—but many stayed until stock, machinery, homes, credit, food, and even hope were gone. On to the West! Once again they headed into the setting sun … once again they headed West out of the Great Plains and hit the highways for the Pacific Coast, the last border. Blown out, baked out and broke … nothing to stay for … nothing to hope for … homeless, penniless and bewildered they joined the great army of the highways. No place to go … and no place to stop. Nothing to eat … nothing to do … their homes on four wheels … their work a desperate gamble for a day’s labor in the fields along the highways, price of a sack of beans or a tank of gas … all they ask is a chance to start over and a chance for their children to eat, to have medical care, to have homes again. 50,000 a month! The sun and winds wrote the most tragic chapter in American agriculture.

from notes by Christopher Palmer © 1992

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