The Hoe-Down from Aaron Copland’s Rodeo is one of America’s most recognizable pieces of music. Why? The “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner” campaign didn’t hurt. But it’s also been used for the Opening Ceremonies of the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics and adapted for the soundtracks of Titanic and An American Tail: Fievel Goes West.
But that iconic theme actually predates Copland. He borrowed it from Kentucky fiddler William “Bill” Hamilton Stepp’s performance of “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” which was recorded in 1937 by Alan and Elizabeth Lomax and transcribed by Ruth Crawford Seeger. When Copland went to write Rodeo for American choreographer Agnes de Mille in 1942, he incorporated this piece of Irish-American folk music almost note-for-note into his score.
Today, we may not remember Stepp—and watching Justin Peck’s Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes we may forget that this music was first used for de Mille’s Rodeo—but his unique voice has been preserved in this piece, making it a true part of American music history.
Header photo: SF Ballet in Justin Peck’s Rodeo // © Erik Tomasson