IN 1800 THE UNITED STATES consisted of sixteen states huddled near the Atlantic Coast. The vast lands to the west were controlled by Great Britain, France, and Spain. The White House and Capitol were still under construction in the new city of Washington D.C.

By 1860, through the Louisiana Purchase, War of 1812, Mexican-American War, and several annexations, the nation stretched from coast to coast, including all the territory of the eventual contiguous forty-eight United States. It was said to be the divine right of white Americans, their Manifest Destiny. The number of states had more than doubled to thirty-three, which now touched the Pacific Coast.

Millions of immigrants, mostly from England, Germany, Ireland, and China, came to fill and work those lands. Native Americans were relentlessly pushed farther west away from their homelands.

Technological change made such a huge nation more practical. In the 1810s the steam engine revolutionized water transportation, making waterways—the oceans, the Great Lakes, and, most importantly for expansion, the Mississippi River basin and a growing canal system—the most efficient way to travel and ship goods. Beginning in the 1840s steam locomotives could travel anywhere track could be laid. Beginning in 1844 telegraph poles were installed alongside train tracks to carry messages encoded in electrical pulses that magically seemed to travel instantaneously. For the parts of the country connected by telegraph, there was no more waiting weeks for word of elections, distant battles, or other time-critical news. The world seemed to be shrinking, as the nation was expanding. Practically, these innovations made managing a vast nation more feasible.

The new sense of nationhood was reflected in a new American music. Professional American composers meant less dependence on recycling European tunes. Africans, transplanted from their native lands, found common traditions among themselves and absorbed European traditions from their captors, establishing a new African American music. Uniquely American popular music melded elements of European traditions with African sounds, often through cultural appropriation.

Ironically, while the Union was expanding, forces were brewing that would tear it apart. With each new state came debate about whether it would join as a slave or free state, so the balance of power in Congress did not teeter too far in one direction. Of course, in retrospect, it is easy to see those storm clouds on the horizon, but most people living through the era likely considered the Civil War as unthinkable as we consider it inevitable.

Amid optimistic talk of Manifest Destiny, reform-minded citizens were able to see the inequalities that belied the declaration that “all men are created equal.” Abolitionism called for the immediate end to slavery. Songs became weapons in the war of words urging people to take a stand. The Underground Railroad openly defied laws like the Fugitive Slave Act (1850) to win freedom for enslaved Africans. Innocent-sounding songs sent secret messages directing fugitives on their way.

Motivated by their faith, reformers commonly worked on several issues, including abolition, women’s rights, temperance, and prison and factory reform. The Second Great Awakening fueled spiritual fervor, prompting many to take up a cause or join one of the experimental new utopian religious communities. Songs became both an expression of faith and a call to action.

This was the era of songs. They were portable—easy to perform and publish—and offered a variety of sentiments for different purposes. Parlor songs, especially, became popular as a growing middle class now had the wherewithal to make music in the home, including a room (the parlor) in the house set aside for family fellowship like reading, games, and music-making. During this time, sheet music grew into a profitable way to distribute songs. Publishers began to make money from improved methods of mass production and distribution, but also found it lucrative to sell more substantial songs. Whereas broadsides (a single sheet of text without music) sold for a couple of cents and a single-sheet score (with text and music) sold for twelve cents per page, a two-page piece such as “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which first appeared as a parlor song, could sell for twenty-five cents. Despite being higher priced than broadsides, sheet music became increasingly affordable and extremely popular.

Because the law required American publishers to pay royalties to American composers, during the early part of the nineteenth century foreign songs continued to flood American markets. This influenced the taste of the American public and the style of popular American songs for some time. British composer Henry Bishop’s “Home, Sweet Home” (1823) was the most popular song of the nineteenth century. Narrative ballads were also popular, especially those, such as “Woodman, Spare that Tree,” by English-born Henry Russell (1812–1901). Even patriotic songs often took their tunes from British songs. In 1814, for example, the English tune “Anacreon in Heaven” was borrowed for a poem by Francis Scott Key, becoming “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The other great source of influence was the influx of Irish (a culture known for its singing) that began in 1817. Prompted by a need for construction workers in New York after the War of 1812, this population surge particularly influenced America’s taste in popular song. Although they were originally published in England, “Irish melodies” by Thomas Moore (1779–1852) were reprinted in many collections in America. Moore’s songs, which consist of newly composed texts and refashioned folk melodies, entered the mainstream of music in America throughout the nineteenth century and were echoed in the parlor songs written by many American composers. Popular topics include separation, yearning, romantic love, sentimentality, death, children, and young women.

Increasingly popular were songs written in dialect that portray enslaved and free Blacks in demeaning ways. Early examples include “Coal Black Rose,” “Zip Coon,” “Jim Along Josey,” and “Long Tail Blue.” George Washington Dixon (1808–61) was among the first to specialize in stage caricatures of Blacks, performing in blackface in the late 1820s in New York. “Jump Jim Crow,” the best-known dialect song of the day (the title later became associated with racial discriminatory laws), was first performed by Thomas “Daddy” Rice (1808–60) in New York in 1832. By 1843, such songs were strung together in blackface minstrel shows. Minstrel companies such as the Virginia Minstrels toured to full audiences, mostly in the North and Midwest.

Minstrel songs combined the banjo sound, an import from Africa, with Irish-Scottish melodies. Composers wrote dialogue for Black characters in an exaggerated dialect and actors performed offensive stereotypes, intended to be humorous, based on imagined aspects of Black life and culture. Such portrayals popularized negative stereotypes of African Americans that persist to the current day.

Minstrelsy was associated with Andrew Jackson’s presidency. Hailing from Tennessee, the president was not a member of the East Coast elite that had dominated early American politics and industry. As an antagonist to both those above (the traditional ruling class) and below (slaves, free Blacks, and Native Americans), he was seen as the voice of working-class, rural, and western white America. These Americans—who were low but not lowest on the American social ladder—are also those who are primarily associated with early minstrelsy. Like Jackson, minstrelsy punched both up and down. The offensive stereotypes attacked Blacks below these white Americans, while the urban dandy blackface characters, such as Zip Coon, also mocked the perceived pretensions of the upper class.

One of the most famous troupes was the Christy Minstrels, who became notable in the 1850s for their performances of Stephen Foster’s “Ethiopian Melodies.” Foster (1826–64) of Pittsburgh was familiar with the popular Irish and Scottish songs of the day and emulated many of them in his compositions. Parlor songs such as “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” were modeled after sentimental Irish songs. In addition to his sentimental songs, Foster wrote songs notable for their realistic portrayal of the times, such as “Hard Times Come Again No More,” which deal with themes such as poverty, high mortality rates, and economic hardship.

Foster’s dialect songs parallel a shift that was occurring in the minstrel genre as performers such as Edwin Christy (leader of the Christy Minstrels) made their performances more family friendly, presumably to expand its appeal and increase ticket and music sales. Among Foster’s most enduring songs are “Oh! Susanna” and “Camptown Races,” which utilize offensive dialect and imagery. But some of his other songs softened the elements of caricature and deepened characterization by showing his Black subjects as experiencing happiness, love, sadness, grief, and homesickness. Songs such as “Old Folks at Home” (also known as “Way Down Upon the Swanee River”), “Old Black Joe,” “Nelly was a Lady,” and “My Old Kentucky Home” are primary examples. A couple of Foster’s songs were even sung by abolitionists because some people perceived them as sympathetic and humanizing portrayals of African Americans.

Benjamin Hanby of Ohio was another northern white composer whose minstrel songs adopted sentimentality and softened caricatures. Hanby’s “Darling Nelly Gray,” popular in parlors throughout America, recounts the story of a Black man in Kentucky whose sweetheart’s owner sells her away to Georgia.

Minstrelsy’s popularity extended into the twentieth century, and it continued to exert a profound influence on other forms of popular culture. Some early vaudeville songs used dialect, as in “Oh Dat Low Bridge.” Many of the minstrel songs were so popular that their tunes were adapted to other texts and for other purposes. The instrumentation of minstrel tunes, namely the banjo, bones, tambourine, and fiddle, would eventually influence early country music—initially known as “hillbilly” music—from the South in the early twentieth century.

While many performers were interested in pure entertainment, some used the emotional power of song to effect change. The Hutchinson Family—Judson, John, Asa, and Abby—were one such group. They formed their troupe in 1842 after having seen the success of the Rainer Family, a Swiss group that was touring America. The Hutchinsons launched their career in their native New Hampshire but began touring almost immediately and were an instant success. Although they wrote many songs themselves, they also performed the works of others.

Known primarily for their moralistic songs such as “King Alcohol” and abolitionist songs such as “Get Off the Track,” they also sang sentimental ballads of their own, including “My Mother’s Bible” and “The Good Old Days of Yore.” Many of their songs were adaptations: new lyrics set to existing melodies. They were known to set significant texts that focused on current social and political issues to new music. One such example, which points out the poor conditions of women laboring in the relatively new textile industry, is “The Song of the Shirt.” The Hutchinson Singers were among the earliest groups to get involved in current social and political issues (a nineteenth-century Weavers or Black Eyed Peas). After the original group disbanded in 1855, the families of each brother formed several Hutchinson Family groups that continued the tradition of singing for social change.

Other songs of the period commented on political issues and were used to promote political candidates. “The Hunters of Kentucky,” written in 1822, celebrated the victory of Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 and served as a campaign song during his run for the presidency in 1824.

William Henry Harrison established his reputation in the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe, which destroyed a Shawnee defense in Indiana. The song retelling the story, “Tip and Ty,” was used in Harrison’s campaign against Martin Van Buren in 1840. Although the song may not be remembered, its impact on the election was considerable and the slogan it used, “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too!” still lives.

Some historians assert that most Native American music has changed little from its inception, but this is hard to determine since it was an oral tradition among Native Americans and historians and anthropologists did not conduct significant research on the topic until the late nineteenth century. While it was often mentioned in early accounts from explorers, missionaries and, traders (see Unit 1), the fascination with Native American music did not begin until the late 1860s. Encouraged by the invention of the phonograph (Thomas Edison's cylinder recorder was invented in 1877), this interest was largely funded by the US Government to better acquaint itself with its perceived foe.

The following traits are generally characteristic of most Native American music and have been passed down in oral tradition for perhaps as long as 3,500 years. The most important trait is that Native American music is not composed in the Euro-American sense of being written down, but it is spontaneous, perhaps even emerging from a dream or apparition, and is functional in nature. All music serves a purpose, whether it is for calling warriors to battle, or asking for improved harvests and hunts or protection from powerful spells. Songs and dances provide assistance in everyday life in an important and all-encompassing manner.

Perhaps because Native American music serves a useful purpose and is not merely entertainment, it is most often vocal but only sometimes uses understandable texts. Often the single melodic line is sung with "vocables," syllables that have no meaning and can be sung by one person or by many in unison. Instruments may be used to accompany these "lyrics," but these are almost exclusively percussive instruments (drums, rattles, sticks beaten together, etc.), with wind instruments (primitive whistles or flutes) added at times.

Preservation of traditional Native American music was particularly difficult for the Cherokee, who were traumatically severed from their land. But it was also nearly impossible for most Native American tribes in the face of the overwhelming influence of the white colonizers. The examples that remain of traditional Native American music have been passed down through a tenuous connection in the face of overwhelming differences in the surrounding culture.

This was the era of a water-faring economy and songs were an integral part of this important mode of transportation. There were work songs for seafaring vessels, riverboats, canal barges, and dock work, as well as songs for relaxation and entertainment.

Sailors have been singing on board ships since the first ship left land. In the nineteenth century, however, it became financially imperative that sailors and ships travel faster and more efficiently. To maximize the work of the merchant sailors, workers would sing to make the work go faster and easier. Songs known as sea chanties (or shanties) filled the bill. Different songs with different rhythms and tempos were used for different jobs.

American sea chanties were the step-children of their British counterparts, as American sailors relied heavily on the British repertoire. British chantying was silenced during the wars of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries, since British navy sailors were forbidden to sing while at work aboard naval ships due to the fear that singing would interfere with giving and receiving orders. By around 1815 the British had resumed chantying. By this time American sailors had already been developing their own tradition.

Chanty singing was at its high point during the whaling era (ca. 1820–60). Whaling songs, as well as Revolutionary War soldiers’ and sailors’ songs that were popular at the time, sparked the American seafarers’ imaginations when adapting the sea chanty custom. In the latter part of the century, American sailors continued to develop their own style, strongly influenced by the music of African Americans in the South.

One chronicler of sea chanties describes the criteria for a good sea song:


The songs of the sailor are sung to the accompaniment of the thrilling shrouds, the booming double bass of the hollow topsails, and the multitudinous chorus of ocean. They are not sung indoors at a parlour piano and cannot be found in sheet music stores. They must contain good mouth-filling words, with the vowels in the right place, and the rhythmic ictus at proper distance for chest and hand to keep true time. (Smith, p. xix)  

Often these “good mouth-filling words” were not fit for delicate ears and rhyming schemes were forgotten.

Captain and crew alike prized a good chantyman on board, as someone who could motivate the crew working together efficiently. Most had their own favorite songs, and freely changed the words, especially during solos. The chorus was generally unchanged, however, so a group of men could easily pick up the tune and respond in chorus.

During this period the repertoire of sea chanties expanded from a small body of general work songs to a large repertoire of songs that were divided into separate categories, according to type of ship work. “Hauling” songs, for example, were sung when pulling on lines, cables, and sails, and “heaving” songs were used when pushing against something.

Another type of song often sung on ships were “forecastle” songs, sung by a soloist during times of relaxation and intended solely for entertainment. The name is taken from the front part of the ship where men spent their leisure time. Such songs usually dealt with home and loved ones or consisted of ballads chronicling important events or heroes. “Greenland Whale Fishery” is a forecastle song, one of many dealing with the important whaling industry.

Musically, maritime songs became more interesting, longer, and more complex throughout the century. Melodies developed from the simple chants of the early songs to more complex ones. New songs often had to be improvised to suit the physical motion of the jobs. Rhythms were modified and varied as syncopation and accented syllables were introduced into certain song forms.

Sea chanties flourished around the newly developing areas of seafaring. As with the whaling industry, songs were created along the fishing banks of the northeastern seaboard and many were particularly inspired by the California Gold Rush. Voyage time around Cape Horn and up the West Coast became the basis of intense competition and led to the invention of new sea chanties that chronicled the voyages to that part of the world. Chanties such as “Goin’ Round the Horn” described a voyage around the Cape, and “Santy Anno,” a combination chanty and song of the ’49ers, described events of the Mexican-American War.

Mid-century waves of immigrants stimulated the composition of new chanties. Even more significant was the contribution of the African American songs from the South. Sailors who did seasonal work loading cotton on the docks of ports in the South likely learned work songs from black stevedores, the southern cotton loaders. Stevedores learned their work songs from spirituals and group labor songs that developed on the plantations and were probably further influenced by the songs of the boatmen who traveled the Mississippi River. Likewise, river boatmen learned sea chanties like “Shenandoah” and incorporated them into their work. Canalmen also sang away the hours of leading mules and horses on towpaths.

The influence of the African American work song distinguishes the American sea chanty from the British. Besides adding an improvised “bluesy” quality to the chanty, African Americans added harmonization to the American version.

At the start of the nineteenth century, sea chanties were generally in minor keys and addressed sad topics, but the influence of southern blacks made them livelier. Often, tunes from popular songs were adapted for sea chanties, or other maritime songs. “Banks of the Sacramento,” an old California chanty from the 1850s, is based on Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races”:



Oh, New York's race course is nine miles long,
To me hoo-dah! To me hoo-dah!
Oh, New York's race course is nine miles long,
To me, hoo-dah! Hoo-dah day
Then it's blow my bully boys, blow
For California
There's plenty of gold so I've been told,
On the banks of Sacramento.

Thus, any song with good “mouth-filling” words and the right rhythm was adopted into the maritime culture.

The influence of the southern blacks on sea chanties is one example of how songs of the various labor forces in early America crossed lines and transformed one another. Songs lived many different lives, depending on the audience and the work requirements. “Shenandoah” is an excellent example of a song that survives in many different versions. While it originally may have been created as a boat song, it survived for some time as a favorite of soldiers and eventually found its way to the ocean as a sea chanty. Thus it appears in many published collections with differing texts, depending on the source.

With the introduction of steam the sea chanty all but disappeared from docks and ships. The strenuous crew work of hauling and heaving was no longer needed. Steamships such as the riverboat Glendy Burke, commemorated in Stephen Foster’s minstrel song of the same name, precluded the need for sailing songs and the tradition faded.

Songs reflecting the tradition of the sailors’ sea chanties stayed alive, however, in vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley. While these songs did not originate from the true experiences of the sailor and did not reflect reality, they nevertheless extended the life of the tradition by emulating the sea chanty. One example is “Oh Dat Low Bridge,” a song about the Erie Canal that was composed for a vaudeville show. Although many songs developed around building and working on the canals, their bawdy content kept them from being written down. “Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal,” one of the best-known songs about the canal linking Buffalo and Albany, New York, was possibly sung by the canal workers, but it was published by a Tin Pan Alley composer who claimed it as his own in 1913. He no doubt cleaned up the lyrics as well:


I've got a mule, her name is Sal,
Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal;
She's a good old worker and a good old pal,
Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal.
We've hauled some barges in our day,
Filled with lumber, coal, and hay,
And we know ev'ry inch of the way
From Albany to Buffalo.

"Low bridge, ev'rybody down!
Low bridge, for we're going through a town;
And you'll always know your neighbor,
You'll always know your pal,
If you ever navigated on the Erie Canal.





Westward expansion introduced a new type of song that would eventually become known as the cowboy song. These songs were characterized, initially, by well-known tunes, typically from a popular song or show tune, and carried with them a sense of the adventure and difficulty of the life led on the frontier. Sparked by the Gold Rush movement of the late 1840s, songs such as “Sweet Betsy from Pike” documented the arduous journey west by “Prairie Schooner.” These pioneers experienced things they would never have imagined prior to heading west.

There was an increase in wild tales, such as “Old Dan Tucker,” originally a minstrel song that was adapted and embellished as it traveled. It became immensely popular as a representation of the uncivilized freedom of the West. As if he were a real person, stories circulated about Dan Tucker’s exploits until he became a hero throughout the frontier.



I come to down de udder night,
I hear de noise an saw de fight,
De watchman was a running roun,
Cryin' old Dan Tucker's come to town,

So, get out de way
Get out de way!
Get out de way!
Old Dan Tucker your [sic] too late to come to supper.


As more pioneers made their way west, a new and different culture grew. Entertainment became a key distraction for the weary miners. Songs that chronicled the '49ers’ experiences became popular and were often written down in collections such as Put’s Original California Songster. But it was a version of Stephen Foster’s “Oh! Susanna” that carried the optimistic miners across the plains with lyrics about mining for gold.



I came from Salem City
With my washbowl on my knee,
I'm going to California,
The gold-dust for to see.
It rained all night the day I left,
The weather it was dry,
The so hot I froze to death
—Oh, brothers, don't you cry!

Oh, California
That's the land for me!
I'm bound for San Francisco
With my washbowl on my knee.


The nineteenth century opened amid a Protestant religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening (1795–1835). Revival meetings in large cities and small towns, and a new institution, the “camp meeting” on the frontier, preached salvation through a personal relationship with a loving God.

An American-born sacred music flourished in the revival atmosphere. In the South, for example, a new and different music developed in the form of white spirituals and shape-note hymnody. With melodies born of the oral tradition, the style was simple enough for the non-literate population to master. The technique of “lining out,” in which a leader sings the musical line first, encouraged a wider participation in the service as the congregation repeated each line and often embellished it. Adapted by both white and Black churches, this tradition can still be experienced in many Baptist churches in the South.

The timeless hymn “Amazing Grace,” written by Englishman John Newton but popular in America, exemplified this personal salvation. From our vantage point in the twenty-first century, it is all the more meaningful because of Newton’s career as a slave trader before his conversion.

The American pioneer of music education, Lowell Mason, wrote many hymns during this era. Many continue to be mainstays in churches today: “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” “My Faith Looks Up to Thee,” and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”

Lowell’s “Work, for the Night is Coming” voiced an urgency for mission and reform shared by many religious people in this era. Henry Ward Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), Sojourner Truth, Dorothea Dix, William Lloyd Garrison, Lucretia Mott, Julia Ward Howe, and others each had strong personal religious convictions that motivated their political commitments to reform causes such as abolition, women’s rights, temperance, and prison and asylum reform.

The Second Great Awakening increased Protestant church membership all over the nation and inspired some to test their faith further in utopian religious societies such as the Harmony Society, Shakers, Oneida community, and others. Many of these groups created their own special music, but the Shakers became particularly known (hence their name) for adding dance to their songs during worship. Their “Simple Gifts” put into song their spiritual ideal of simplicity, which was also expressed in their architecture, furniture, and other crafts.

As various religious sects found their voice in songs specific to their beliefs, African Americans developed their own form of religious music: the spiritual. The development of the spiritual may be seen as the result of two trends, beyond Africans’ practicing their own musical traditions. The first was slave owners encouraging their slaves to sing. Some enslavers or overseers did not like a silent slave, guided by the impression that a singing slave is a happy slave, less likely to revolt.

The second trend was the conversion of slaves to Christianity. Learning psalms, hymns, and the precepts of the Christian religion provided subjects for lyrics. The music combined the characteristics of work songs, repetition and simple melodic lines, and traditional African musical elements, such as call and response and syncopation. The result is what we know as the classic spiritual. Sacred texts began to replace secular texts in work songs as the century progressed. “Go Down, Moses” is an excellent example of how the African culture merged with Christian spirituality. Since enslavers encouraged singing, songs became excellent means for enslaved Africans to communicate right under the enslaver’s nose. Certain spirituals, such as “Steal Away” and “Let Us Break Bread Together,” were calls to secret (and forbidden) meetings. “Go Down, Moses,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and others became part of the signaling system for the Underground Railroad.

The spiritual soon made its way out of the slaves’ quarters. Curious about their religious beliefs and way of life, whites came to appreciate these spirituals and even appropriated some of them into their own culture. Whites often adopted original slave songs with universal themes, such as “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”



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