Riding on the Plank
- For SATB chorus and piano; based on a secular text by Asa Stoddard
- Length: 3:15
- Difficulty rating (1-5): 2
Listen to a performance by the Allendale Middle School Choirs conducted by Adam Wurst.
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Premiered by the Allendale (MI) Middle School Chorus, Adam Wurst, conductor
Most of my choral work has been for advanced ensembles, and I was looking for an opportunity to write for a younger ensemble, and to work with a conductor with deep knowledge of the needs, requirements, likes, and dislikes of such an ensemble. I found the perfect candidate in Amanda Koba, beloved former student of mine at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire, who, after graduating, decided to start her career and continue her education in Michigan.
I always like to find texts with local connections to the ensembles I’m writing for whenever possible. As I was doing research on possible texts with Michigan connections, I discovered that much of the state’s early prosperity was due to an extensive system of plank roads. These roads “made of good, well-hewn timber” (as described in the 1837 charter from the State of Michigan to the Detroit, Plymouth and Ann Arbor Turnpike Company) were much more stable and easily traveled by wagon and stagecoach than open dirt roads, which were really mud roads much of the time! Plank roads were built throughout the country from the mid-19th century until the rise of rail travel and the advent of modern highway construction techniques, and Michigan took the lead in building and promoting them.
Though travel on plank roads was easier than travel on uncovered dirt paths, it was apparently none too comfortable. In his poem “Riding on the Plank,” Asa Stoddard (Michigan’s “Farmer Poet”) described the trials and tribulations of riding on 19th century plank roads. I thought that the bumptious energy and historical connections of this text would make it a good choice for middle school chorus, so I’ve set portions of it in this piece.
By the time Amanda and I were able to set up a performance of this new piece, she had left her middle school position, but she introduced me to Adam Wurst, who enthusiastically volunteered to premiere this work with his choir at Allendale Middle School in Michigan. This was a fortunate circumstance, in more than one way—as it turns out, Asa Stoddard wrote his poem about a trip on the Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids Plank Road, which reached its northern terminus about 15 miles from where Allendale Middle School now stands!
My setting of “Riding on the Plank” is dedicated to Amanda Koba—the best wish I can make for her as a fellow teacher is that she have the privilege of working with as many students just like her as possible.
Riding on the Plank
Did you ever, friend or stranger.
Let me ask you free and frank,
Brave the peril, dare the danger,
Of a journey on the Plank?
Ever see the wild commotion,
Hear the clatter, din and clank,
Feel the quick electric motion,
Caused by riding on the Plank?
Horses balking, drivers lashing,
Wishing all plank roads in—blank--
And their owners with them flashing
So it goes upon the Plank.
Wagons creaking, groaning, crashing,
Wrecks bestrewing either bank
Jarring, jolting, jambing, dashing,
This is riding on the Plank.
Hats and bonnets strangely rocking,
Leave no space between them blank;
Kisses stolen, oh! what shocking
Things do happen, on the Plank.
Fathers swearing, children squalling,
Angry mothers try to spank;
Seats upset and they go sprawling
In the wagon on the Plank.
Tipping over, mercy on us!
Broken ribs, or shattered shank,
These afflictions come upon us,
Come from riding on the Plank.
Did you ever, friend or stranger,
Dare a journey on the Plank?
—Asa Stoddard (1814–1906), alt.