Sudip Bose at The American Scholar:
“That was exactly my childhood!” said Eleanor Steber of Barber’s work and Agee’s text, remembering her upbringing in Wheeling, West Virginia. Another superb interpreter of Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Leontyne Price, born in Laurel, Mississippi, had a similar response: “it expresses everything I know about my roots and about my mama and father … my home town. … You can smell the South in it.” Why has Barber’s piece appealed to so many people from such different backgrounds—irrespective of race, wealth, or region? The text, a poetic hymn to both nostalgia and existential insecurity, does address questions of universal appeal, but I suspect that the music’s subtle bluesy streaks increases its familiarity and allure. Barber may have been the consummate continental Romantic, but he never sounded so idiomatically American as he does in Knoxville: Summer of 1915. The work speaks to us all. In its journey from innocence to experience, it deals profoundly with our loneliness in the world, with how we reckon with growing up, a business made all the harder when the last thing we come to learn is exactly who we are.