The Calf Path
For Medium-High Voice and Piano (2020)
by Ronald Hannah


Duration: 5.5 minutes

The Calf Path
Sam Walter Foss (1858 – 1911)

One day, through the primeval wood,
A calf walked home, as good calves should;

But made a trail all bent askew,
A crooked trail as all calves do.
Since then two hundred years have fled,

And, I infer, the calf is dead.
But still he left behind his trail,
And thereby hangs my moral tale.

The trail was taken up next day
By a lone dog that passed that way;
And then a wise bell-wether sheep
Pursued the trail o'er vale and steep,
And drew the flock behind him, too,
As good bell-wethers always do.
And from that day, o'er hill and glade,

Through those old woods a path was made;

And many men wound in and out,
And dodged, and turned, and bent about
And uttered words of righteous wrath

Because ‘twas such a crooked path.
But still they followed -- do not laugh --
The first migrations of that calf,
And through this winding wood-way stalked,

 Because he wobbled when he walked.

This forest path became a lane,
That bent, and turned, and turned again;
This crooked lane became a road,
Where many a poor horse with his load

Toiled on beneath the burning sun,
And traveled some three miles in one.
And thus a century and a half
They trod the footsteps of that calf.

The years passed on in swiftness fleet,
The road became a village street,
And this, before men were aware,
A city's crowded thoroughfare;
And soon the central street was this
Of a renowned metropolis;
And men two centuries and a half

 Trod in the footsteps of that calf.

Each day a hundred thousand rout

Followed the zigzag calf about;

And o'er his crooked journey went

The traffic of a continent.
A hundred thousand men were led
By one calf near three centuries dead.

They followed still his crooked way,

And lost one hundred years a day;
For thus such reverence is lent
To well-established precedent.

A moral lesson this might teach,
Were I ordained and called to preach;

 For men are prone to go it blind
Along the calf-paths of the mind,
And work away from sun to sun
To do what other men have done.
They follow in the beaten track,
And out and in, and forth and back,

And still their devious course pursue,

To keep the path that others do.

They keep the path a sacred groove,

Along which all their lives they move.

But how the wise old wood-gods laugh,

Who saw the first primeval calf!
Ah! many things this tale might teach --

But I am not ordained to preach.

Sam Walter Foss, librarian and poet is described in the link at left as having "...a boisterous faith in humanity ... but he had a sharp eye for human foibles and failings..." I find his poems perhaps a little too rustic for my taste, but "The Calf Path" truly speaks to me, so much that I felt I had to make a musical setting of it. In one of his poems he speaks, for example, of the coming First World War, contrasting a man's premonition of worldwide destruction with the demands of daily life, viz.:


Hear MIDI version:

"There will be a war in Europe,
Thrones will be rent and overturned,"
("Go and fetch a pail of water," said his wife).
"Nations shall go down in slaughter,
Ancient capitals be burned... etc.

     The Calf Path (full text at right) has the same sort of ring (minus the sexism), as it describes how a simple thing like the wanderings of a calf can become a trail, then a road, then a highway despite its obvious wandering unsuitability as we all plod along, continuing what other have done before. The poem is also so carefully constructed (do observe its rhythms and rhyme scheme) that it was truly a pleasure to set to music!

     This work is available for purchase or rental from the Canadian Music Centre, or by sending me an email (below). As a teaser, I have made the first few pages of the score, and a MIDI version of the song, available in the box above.