Spanish Johnny


Spanish Johnny - (2009)    

Willa Cather

for mezzo soprano and piano


The old West, the old time,
    The old wind singing through
The red, red grass a thousand miles --
    And Spanish Johnny, you!
He'd sit beside the water ditch
    When all his herd was in,
And never mind a child, but sing
    To his mandolin.

The big stars, the blue night,
    The moon-enchanted lane;
The olive man who never spoke,
    But sang the songs of Spain.
His speech with men was wicked talk --
    To hear it was a sin;
But those were golden things he said
    To his mandolin.

The gold songs, the gold stars,
    The world so golden then;
And the hand so tender to a child --
    Had killed so many men.
He died a hard death long ago
    Before the Road came in --
The night before he swung, he sang
    To his mandolin.

[ 4 pages, circa 3' 25" ]

Willa Cather


Willa Cather (1876 - 1947) was a Virginia-born fiction writer, poet and journalist, best known for her depictions of frontier life centered on the Great Plains states, in novels such as O Pioneers!, My √Āntonia, and The Song of the Lark. While still a child, her family moved to Nebraska. She attended the University of Nebraska and became a regular contributor to the Nebraska State Journal. She worked in Pittsburgh for Home Monthly, and then in New York for McClure's Magazine which serialized her novel, Alexander's Bridge. In 1923 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours, published in 1922, and received many similar honors throughout a long career.



The three verses of the poem are treated in like manner by the setting, alterations as germane and necessary to the sense. This is a musing about a man, whose identity is slowly revealed as the text progresses. The accompaniment at times evidences gestures like unto the mandolin of the text -- a plucked instrument, but the larger gestures reference a sense of rural Americana, and the tessitura lies generally in the lower octave of the vocal range until the outcry at the men Johnny had killed. 



The marked "holding back" is a piacere for the performers, to make as much of the revelation of the violent nature of this otherwise lovingly remembered man. The contrast between "tender to a child" and "killed so many men" should seem a rupture between these facets of one man, is if inexplicable. Indeed the more pleasant remembrances continue, for the text informs that all of these images are from "long ago," and therefore we must conclude that the more pleasant memories offset the execution and even that crime for which death was the penalty.



The score for Spanish Johnny is available as a free PDF download, though any major commercial performance or recording of the work is prohibited without prior arrangement with the composer. Click on the graphic below for this piano-vocal score.


Spanish Johnny