Samuel Jones wrote "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" not to praise famous men, but to praise the great women and men who often go unsung in American life.
At least that's how he interprets a verse from the Biblical Apocrypha in which the phrase appears and the book by that title written about sharecroppers by James Agee and photographed by Walker Evans.
"Later in the Bible verse, it praises those people who no one knows, who everyone has forgotten," said Jones, who will guest conduct the Kansas University Symphony Orchestra at 3:30 p.m. today in Hoch Auditorium. ``Their names had been blotted out. I think it was those people that Agee intended to praise, those people we seem to forget."
Jones will conduct "Famous Men" during the concert. The bill also includes the prelude to "Die Meistersinger von Nurnburg" by Wagner and Dvorak's Symphony No. 8 in G major, played under the baton of KU assistant professor Jorge Perez-Gomez.
JONES ORIGINALLY wrote "Famous Men" for the Shennandoah Valley Bicentennial Committee; it was first presented in 1972. The piece works in traditional folk and church melodies in the tradition of Aaron Copland, Jones said. In the 1800s, the Shennandoah Valley was a center for rural church music.
Although European romantic composers incorporated the folk music of their times in their compositions, American composers came late to their own tradition, Jones said. Not until early 20th-century composer Charles Ives, who went unnoticed for years after he began writing, and Copland and George Gershwin did American jazz or folk music invade concert halls.
"Some early American composers did some work with Indian music, and Henry Gilbert included Negro spirituals in some of his work," he said. "But really, we were late in using American folk music in our own. We really don't get that until Ives, although no one knew it when he was writing, and then Copland."
"FAMOUS MEN" operates in a classical mode, the composer said.
"My piece, overall, employs bitonality," he said. "In some passages, one part of the orchestra plays in one key, and one plays in another. But basically, it's a tonal composition in a somewhat conservative style."
Jones, who earned degrees from Millsaps College and the Eastman School of Music, has conducted numerous orchestras and was one of the original faculty members at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University in Houston, where he still teaches.
He first began composing music as a child during school and piano lessons; when he was in high school the band played some of his marches. But it wasn't until college that he decided to pursue music seriously.
"I didn't know what I wanted to do until it dawned on me that you could make a living doing these things." he said.
He finds he can handle both conducting his own works and letting others play them.
"I enjoy both very much," he said. "I do a great deal of conducting with both my own work and other peoples', and I enjoy shaping how my pieces play. But as for other people conducting my works, I have to enjoy it. You've got to let go if your music is to live on after you."