McNair was commissioned to compose the work for Chattanooga Symphony for its resident quintets. He was asked to revise and adapt the work for the Marian Anderson String Quartet.
“The story told by the narrator is based on the Underground Railroad, and features a fictional African American family escaping slavery. The music incorporates the folksong ‘Follow the Drinking Gourd,’ used in a variety of ways, as well as the melodies of three spirituals, along with original music and creative treatment of the tunes,” McNair explained.
In the Washington D.C. performance, an enthusiastic audience was invited to participate in the chorus of the original folksong. McNair says the song “contained clues for enslaved persons who wished to attempt escape, as to the time of year, the signs to follow, the general direction (the Drinking Gourd was code for the big Dipper constellation, which pointed the way), and large landmarks along the way such as rivers. The ‘old man’ in the song waiting to carry folks to freedom was ‘Peg-Leg Joe,’ who was an Underground Railroad operative, and he taught the song to slaves while working as a temporary laborer on plantations.”
When he composed this work for the Chattanooga Symphony quintets, McNair hoped that it might find a broader life, but he had no idea that a professional group such as the Marian Anderson String Quartet would add it to their repertoire and play it throughout the entire concert season in multiple locations in multiple states, including Texas, Georgia, Delaware, Rhode Island, and Washington, D.C..
“Having this group of wonderful musicians take my work to heart, and give a truly passionate performance of it in a setting like the National Gallery of Art, with a sizable audience for the space, long applause for the performance, and having people ask for an autograph afterwards–this was a remarkable experience,” he said.
McNair is working on Preludes for solo piano, and a suite of pieces for String Orchestra. He finished a set of songs for baritone voice and piano on poetry by Walt Whitman in September 2014. Those songs were premiered by his colleague Perry Ward in the Music Department at UTC, and they were performed again at Converse College on February 27 by Ward.