AT THE BEGINNING of the 1770s the colonists in America were enthusiastically British subjects who had recently helped secure their land for the British Empire through a successful war against France and its allies. In culture, as in politics, Colonial America owed much to "Mother England" and its music reflected those strong ties. But by the end of the decade the colonists had taken the drastic step of declaring their independence.

As the fledgling nation worked toward its political independence from Britain, it also gradually became more musically independent with composers and musical traditions uniquely its own. As immigration and the slave trade brought musics from new places, social and cultural hierarchies solidified. 

At the heart of colonial music was the religious tradition brought by the first settlers, especially those in New England who had immigrated for religious freedom. It served as the starting point not only for music of faith, but also popular ballads and songs brought from the British Isles. The British subjects on the East Coast were as diverse as the land they settled, especially when it came to religion. As a consequence, so was their music. In New England, which was founded by Puritans, colonists were interested in experimenting with new forms of government such as the town meeting to live out their form of congregational religion.

Although the Puritans retained the simple singing style they brought with them, by the mid-1700s they had begun to diversify their singing style and repertoire. Psalms were still sung, but new innovations gradually emerged. Psalms gave way to hymns, and anthems were increasingly composed by American amateurs, in some cases with melodies borrowed from secular songs. There was a gradual shift from the congregational singing to singing by choirs, and churches began to allow the presence of instruments. The first instruments in American churches were organs, followed by instruments not traditionally associated with the church, such as woodwinds.

Dr. Isaac WattsThe Mid-Atlantic region had the most religious diversity with Dutch Reformed in New York, Quakers and Presbyterians in Pennsylvania, Anglicans and Baptists in Virginia, and Catholics in Maryland. Hymn tunes that could be set to any number of words provided a means of expressing each sects' beliefs. Whereas psalm texts were not changeable, hymns could be set to any poetic text, which allowed much more variety of expression. Hymns could paraphrase psalm texts in a way that embellished the text or commented on it. The varied religious groups in the new nation staged their own "revolutions" and began embracing hymnody as a means of asserting their independence from traditional psalms.

However, because some early hymns were quite complicated melodically, the sense of community established by amateur psalm singing was lost. Only the finest singers could sing the difficult hymns, deepening the divide between music for choir and music for congregational singing. Religious music for choir became more "art" and less "ritual" or functional in these churches.

By the 1750s many church singers attended newly created singing schools to improve their skills. By the end of the century the quantity and quality of the music available had changed dramatically. Because graduates of singing schools wanted new music, they often composed their own. American composers published extensive collections of hymns, anthems, and "fuging tunes," many of which were adapted from those by the English psalmodists. (Any setting of a psalm or hymn verse that includes overlapping of voices through the individual entry of separate voices could be called a "fuging tune.") Publications were varied. Some collections were for particular churches while others were for specific occasions, and still others were anthologies of the most popular settings.

America's first composers began as amateur musicians who composed religious music as a side interest, not as a primary means of income. Some were able to make music their sole employment as itinerant singing masters, setting up "singing schools" for congregations longing for musical accuracy in their devotion to God. They often composed their own tunes, but it was also common to "borrow" melodies from others. To teach their students to sing, they compiled songs in "tunebooks," which were adaptable to several religious texts.

New England Psalm SingerThe first known American to attempt to make composition his only profession is William Billings (1746–1800). A tanner by trade, Billings primarily worked in religious music, in the tradition of psalms and hymns. His New England Psalm Singer (1770) was the first published tunebook produced entirely by a single American composer (previous tunebooks were compilations of music by various composers). Billings asserted his artistic freedom by declaring independence from the strict compositional rules observed by European composers.

Starting with Billings, tunebooks gradually became less exclusively religious, as secular texts were increasingly set to music. Other American composers, such as Daniel Read, Supply Belcher, and Samuel Holyoke followed his example and extended it by including new styles. American composers began issuing collections including "set pieces" (a setting of poetry to music longer than a single stanza without any musical repetition) and anthems (more adventurous choral works with different combinations of vocal interaction: sometimes everyone sings at the same time, sometimes only pairs of voices, or sometimes they enter in a staggered manner, one after the other), which, while interesting, were not always successful.

With the impending revolution, the songs of these composers inevitably began to take on a political tone. Almost any tune, sacred or secular, became a political tool in rallying the colonists in their fight for freedom. Events leading up to the Revolutionary War invited the composition of numerous songs. Although the tunes were not always new, the lyrics were current.

Songs written during this era had a journalistic function, chronicling not only the development of the Revolution but also most other current events. Patriotic songs were called upon not only in the larger political action against Britain, but also for commentary on local politics. In fact, song lyrics were published as editorials in newspapers or as handbills or broadsides—one-sheet tracts that were sold on the streets.

Ironically, British songs were one of the sources for American political songs. American revolutionaries regularly used British tunes as the melodies for newly written texts. With the enactment of the Stamp Act (1765) and the ensuing demonstrations calling for its repeal came the appearance of "liberty songs." These songs, such as John Dickinson's "Liberty Song," consisted of British tunes with new lyrics, which were published like editorials in newspapers or on broadsides. Two of the most famous British tunes appropriated by the revolutionaries were "Yankee Doodle" and "God Save the King" (VAT Unit 1; now familiar to Americans as "My Country 'Tis of Thee.")

Boston, where citizens were particularly active in the fight against taxation without representation, was the subject of many political songs. William Billings's "Lamentation Over Boston," based on the 137th Psalm, is a description and commentary of the repercussions of the Boston Tea Party.

Ballad of the KegsThese songs became excellent gauges of the mood of both Patriots and Loyalists. Broadside ballads appeared everywhere, documenting significant historical moments, from Washington's crossing of the Delaware to the inhumane treatment of American prisoners by the British. Francis Hopkinson's "Ballad of the Kegs" (1778) tells of a failed plan to float bombs in the Delaware disguised as wooden kegs. This song entertained the troops, providing some diversion from the gloomy tasks at hand.

Benjamin Franklin composed a lengthy satirical ballad, entitled "The King's own Regulars" (1775), as a commentary on the sorry performance of the British regulars in the Battle of Lexington. Political songs continued to be published after the war, providing detailed descriptions of current events, including the adoption of the Constitution and the inauguration of Washington as the first president.

The proliferation of editorializing through song was not limited to the Patriot's cause. Sometimes veritable "battles by ballad" ensued between Patriots and Loyalists on the pages of rival newspapers or broadsides in the streets. British soldiers first sang "Yankee Doodle" as insulting mockery of the untrained American army during the French and Indian War, and it was used by both Patriots and Loyalists to satirize the opposing side in the Revolutionary Era. Eventually it was adopted as a proud marching song by Continental troops.

Military bands were an important source of musical culture, both during and after the war. As one of the few sources of entertainment, the bands performed at a variety of events, including assemblies, college commencements, hangings, and officers' dinners. Their primary purpose was to boost morale for the troops, but they also provided entertainment to civilians. Good military musicians were sometimes scarce and often "singing masters" were employed to provide further training. Wealthier officers would sometimes resort to barter or bribery to compete to lead the top bands, filling in the ranks of the bands with better musicians from among British deserters or prisoners of war. Because visiting regimental bands, particularly the French and Hessian (German) mercenary bands, provided more elaborate entertainment than the British, they were a popular attraction when they came to town. After the war many of these well-trained army musicians stayed in America, spreading their musical talents throughout the land by moving to areas where professional musicians were in short supply.

Many of the founding fathers of American democracy were active in the musical arts. Thomas Jefferson was a patron of art music and an amateur pianist and violinist. As a collector of European and American music, he accumulated an extensive library that is still in existence as a special collection at the University of Virginia. In addition to composing and playing the guitar and harp, Benjamin Franklin invented the improved "glass harmonica." Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was also a musician and composer. His oratorio, America Independent, was performed at the home of the French ambassador just prior to the American victory in the Revolutionary War.

Americans were slower to compose new secular tunes than they were to write new lyrics to existing tunes. Until the end of the 1780s, most of the original music published in America was sacred: hymns, psalms, anthems, and spiritual songs. During the war music publishing declined for several reasons. In addition to economic and social disruption, music publishing was interrupted as a result of the Continental Congress's 1778 ban on plays and "theatrical entertainments," which seriously hampered the production of professionally produced popular music. The lifting of the ban in 1789 saw a resurgence of new American music, particularly in the large northern cities of Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. After the war the advent of copyright protection stimulated new music production and publication.

By 1798, having endured a War for Independence and drafted and ratified both the Articles of Confederation (1781) and the Constitution (1789), Americans celebrated the inauguration of the young nation's second president with a totally homegrown anthem by composer Phillip Phile and poet Joseph Hopkinson. This first completely original patriotic song, "Hail Columbia," sent a strong message of unity and brotherhood. The United States of America had become its own nation with its own music.

After the Revolution immigration to America increased considerably and a significant number of musicians arrived and filled the void of professionals. European newspapers advertised the new nation as ideal for professional musicians. The German Musikalische Bibliothek announced in 1783, "Music supports her Master handsomely in America and one may speedily make a fortune through her" (qtd. in Van Winkle Keller, p. 107). Musicians who faced intense competition at home found stardom in America, where they had almost no competition. Immigrant music teachers and performers, each with their own expertise, brought significant changes to American music.

Benjamin CarrA prominent postwar immigrant was Benjamin Carr (1768–1831), a British-born musician who became a well-known composer, organist, publisher, and concert organizer in the United States. Other significant British-born musicians who immigrated after the war include James Hewitt and Alexander Reinagle, and an important German immigrant was Gottlieb Graupner, an oboist who settled in Boston. With the surge of immigrant influence, America became less dependent on England as a musical source.

These European immigrants taught Americans how to play and appreciate European classical music. In the first half of the nineteenth century, immigrants and Americans established musical institutions such as the St. Cecilia Society, the Handel Society, the Musical Fund Society, and the Philharmonic Society, which fostered interest in and developed a tradition of European classical music in America. Many societies became quite popular and are still in existence today. The growing interest in European music, however, was not just due to the tastes of the new arrivals, for many wealthy Americans looked down on original American music. Thomas Jefferson, for example, felt that it was "scanty and generally pretty bad" (qtd. in Cripe, p. 9).

The increase of concert and theatrical performances in cities was paralleled by a dramatic rise of secular music in wealthy urban homes. A correspondent in the Philadelphia Mirror of Taste and Dramatic Censor wrote in 1810, "Almost every young lady and gentleman, from the children of the judge, the banker, and the general, down to those of the constable, the huckster and the drummer, can make a noise upon some instrument or other, and charm their neighbors with something which courtesy calls music" (qtd. in Hitchcock, p. 34).

Though brought together under a new federal government, Americans continued to be a diverse people and liberally used songs in the service of politics. Between the late 1770s and 1804, all northern states affirmed the unconstitutionality of slavery or passed gradual abolition laws. None of these laws freed current slaves. Instead they freed their children, but only after living in servitude for decades (the exact period of enslavement varied from state to state).

I Sold a Guiltless Negro BoyAs slavery in the North gradually faded away, abolitionists who wanted a nation-wide ban on enslavement employed antislavery songs to spread their message. Catherine Comerford Hillier Graupner, the wife of Gottlieb Graupner in Boston, sang a song entitled "I Sold a Guiltless Negro Boy" (also known as "The Negro Boy") at a concert in 1799, foreshadowing events in the years ahead.

A musical life was obviously not a "luxury" to be afforded only by the well-to-do. Indeed, music was an integral part of the lives of the European and African transplants to the American colonies and early Republic. Because traditional tunes adapted well to accompany work, play, school, and worship, they were recycled many times with new words and tempos to suit different circumstances.

According to musicologist Gilbert Chase, ballads were the "creation and property of nonliterate people of the British Isles" (Chase, p. 53). Thus many ballads were brought to America by people from a different class than those seeking religious freedom. Most of these poor immigrants came to America as indentured servants looking to escape poverty and famine. A wealthy American would agree to pay their way to the New World, and in exchange the immigrant would work for this "master" for an agreed upon period.

The musical influences of the Irish were particularly strong. The majority of Irish immigrants were poor laborers, and many were great singers and dancers. Irish melodies inspired many new songs as new words were set to the old tunes. Although these songs passed through oral tradition, they were often published as Irish melodies in various collections. The texts of these popular songs were not terribly upbeat, as new arrivals in America expressed their longing for home. As musicologist Charles Hamm writes,

  Nostalgia became one of the dominant threads of literature in the 19th century. America was a young, expanding, vigorous nation,where poor, oppressed, disadvantaged people from various countries were finding opportunities denied them elsewhere. … The common denominator …was the fact that all Americans had left homes and homelands and friends and families, that all Americans … suffered from a sense of rootlessness. The theme of nostalgia was in fact one of the most appropriate ones for Americans. (p. 54)  

A large collection of songs emerged around many chores associated with sailing. Sea chanteys, as they were called, varied widely in rhythm and tempo to suit particular jobs. A rhythmic song such as "Blow the Man Down" might accompany heaving ropes to manipulate sails, whereas a slower song such as "Shenandoah" (Unit 3) synchronized footsteps while hoisting anchor and later while poling keelboats on the rivers. Chanteys not only helped morale but also got crews of men to work efficiently and in unison. Shantymen were prized for their ability to match tunes to particular tasks and improvise new verses to make a song as long as needed to finish a job.

Subsistence farmers isolated in the southern Appalachians—many of them Scots-Irish—continued singing the ballads and hymns from the British oral tradition. More than a century later these songs would surprise folklorists with their fidelity to their musical roots and delight fans on the radio as "hillbilly music." Many songs known today as "folk songs" are descendants from this time and region: "Poor Wayfaring Stranger," "Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies," "Down in the Valley," "The Keeper," "Careless Love," "The Water Is Wide," and "On Top of Old Smoky."

As husbands labored long hours in fields or at a trade, women toiled at home. Music accompanied the endless drudgery of housework, which included making fabric as well as clothes for large agricultural families, caring for small livestock, preparing food and storing it, and making soap, candles, and home furnishings. Music helped these hours of labor—sometimes very lonely hours—go more quickly. According to legend, "Pop Goes the Weasel" was sung while winding yarn into skeins on a clock reel. Mothers also sang as they rocked babies to sleep, entertained toddlers, and taught moral lessons to older children. Many children's songs, such as "Aunt Rhody," probably originated from lightening the load of housework and child rearing in this era.

Enslaved Africans (and a small but growing number of free Blacks) lived throughout the colonies and new states, though especially in larger numbers in the South where plantation crops required a large workforce. Their music was rooted heavily in West African traditions, but they rapidly picked up the language and religion of their Anglo-American enslavers. For their own use, African Americans developed an instrument called a banjer, later banjo, based on a traditional west African stringed instrument. By merging several African musical traditions and incorporating European influences, African Americans developed a distinctive musical style that would affect so much of American music in later centuries.

African American work songs, such as the rowing song "Michael Row the Boat Ashore," served practical functions like sea chanteys, but often incorporated spiritual meanings as well. Such songs helped an oppressed people deal with the horrors of captivity and maintain hope for a better future. Unfortunately, little of this music is known from this period. It would not be until the mid-nineteenth century, when the music first captured the interest of white Americans, that it would begin to be widely written down (see VAT, Unit 4).

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