THE FIRST HUMANS TO ARRIVE on the American continent walked across the Bering Land Bridge perhaps as early as 20,000 years ago. The Land Bridge closed as the climate warmed at the end of the Ice Age, isolating the “Americans” from Asia. In their new home, they traveled down the Pacific coast and eventually formed settlements in what is now central Mexico and the continental United States. For thousands of years the descendants of these people traveled and formed communities throughout North and South America, undisturbed by any outsiders from across oceans.

By the time Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas in 1492, all of the North American continent was inhabited by descendants of these peoples, usually referred to as Native Americans today. Unfortunately we know little about their music prior to Columbus’s journeys. Due to the record-keeping tendencies of Europeans, we know more about it following their arrival.

Native Americans resisted being conquered by Europeans and hundreds of thousands succumbed to European diseases—such as mumps, measles, smallpox, and typhus—to which they had not developed immunity. Because of these factors Europeans viewed them as poor candidates for enslavement and quickly instituted the transatlantic slave trade, in which enslaved Africans were brought to the Americas on European ships. The first enslaved Africans arrived in the Caribbean in the early 1500s. They were brought to the English colonies on the North American continent beginning in 1619, when they were first sold in Jamestown.

The English colonies were established on the Eastern Seaboard, where the Dutch also had substantial land holdings. Most of these settlers did not venture too far inland. That territory was claimed by France as New France, yet for the most part French territory remained unexplored. Land in the South and Southwest was colonized by the Spanish. Thus beginning in the early 1600s, European settlers from England, France, Spain, and the Netherlands cohabited—often violently—on the North American continent with Native Americans and enslaved Africans. Their musics were distinct and tell us much about their motivations, difficulties, and dreams.

The first wave of Europeans who set about carving out an existence in America did not include professional musicians. In fact it would be about 150 years after the settlements at Jamestown (1607) and Plymouth (1620) before white Americans supported their first music professionals. In the early settlements amateur music making provided both religious inspiration and social diversion.

People used music for many different purposes and carried their music with them as they traveled. Native American nations had their own musical traditions. In the first European settlement of North America, music came with the Puritans of New England, the Anglican land speculators who settled the South, the diverse mix of Dutch, Quaker, German, and Catholic inhabitants of the middle colonies. West and central Africans, forced to migrate, brought a rich mixture of instrumental and singing traditions. As diverse as the groups were, musical expression was common to them all. Songs were sung for worship, work, and play.

The earliest colonists documented Native American musical practices. In the East, residents of the first permanent colony, Jamestown, took note of the music of the region’s native inhabitants. In 1612, for example, a book on Virginia included the following description:

For their musicke they vse a thicke cane, on which they pipe as on a Recorder. For their warres, they haue a great deepe platter of wood. They cover the mouth thereof with a skin, at each corner they tie a walnut, which meeting on the backside neere the bottome, with a small rope they twitch them togither till it be so tought and stiffe, that they may beat vpon it as vpon a drumme.

But their chiefe instruments are Rattels made of small gourds or Pumpion shels. Of these they haue Base, Tenor, Countertenor, Meane and Trible. These mingled with their voices sometimes 20 or 30 togither, make such a terrible noise as would rather affright then delight any man. (Quoted in Yellin, p. 286)

Puritans in New England observed native customs as well. In this region powwaws, or shamans, commonly used music and dance in healing rituals. Colonist William Wood observed a Ninnimissinuok powwaw: “The parties that are sick or lame being brought before them, the powwow sitting down, the rest of the Indians giving attentive audience to his imprecations and invocations, and after the violent expression of many a hideous bellowing and groaning, he makes a stop, and then all the auditors with one voice utter a short canto” (qtd. in Bragdon, p. 218).

In the early Colonial Period, the only people to move inside the continent from the Eastern Seaboard were French Jesuit missionaries, who wrote annual reports that circulated widely. In an account of the Hurons from 1637, Le Jeune wrote,


These Charlatans sing and beat their drums to cure the sick, to kill their enemies in war, and to capture animals in the hunt. Pigarouich, the Sorcerer … , sang to us one of the songs he uses when he intends to go hunting. He uttered only these words, Iagoua mou itoutaoui ne e-e, which he repeated several times in different tones, grave and heavy, although pleasant enough to the ear. We asked him why he sang this to capture animals. “I learned,” said he, “this song in a dream; and that is why I have preserved and used it since.” (qtd. in David E. Crawford, p. 201)

Other French reports contain referencesto the indigenous people singing during intertribal councils, banquets, and death rituals. 

Europeans’ battles against Native Americans are described in several ballads from this era. “The Rebels Reward,” for example, with a text attributed to Benjamin Franklin Sr., relates the “full and true Account of the Victory obtain’d over the Indians at Norrigiwock, on the Twelfth of August last, by the English Forces under Command of Capt. Johnson Harmon.” This ballad with more than twenty-five verses brings the battle to life in great detail. Like many ballads of the time, it begins with a verse setting the stage and inviting the audience to gather around:

You jolly hearted soldiers
Whose Courage ne’er was stain’d
Come listen to my ditty,
A truer ne’er was penn’d
‘tis of a noble action
by Captain Harmon done
Whose courage ‘gainst the Indians, 
To all the world is known
He march’d and gave the Rebels
A sad and fearful schock
Full sixty fighting Indians with Ratilee,
their old Priest,
And Women and Papooses
Five score there was at least.

The Spanish saw it as their responsibility to convert natives to Catholicism. The missionaries taught them about Roman Catholic worship and put them to work in assisting with sacred rituals and other duties. The Spanish priests taught the natives to read, write, and sing, and in all 100 Spanish towns a group of at least three or four Native Americans sang daily in the Holy Mass and Vespers. 

The earliest permanent settlement in Florida was established at San Agustín in 1565. By the end of the 1600s Spanish missions were scattered throughout Florida and along the coast in present-day Georgia. Although there are few records about music in these missions, it is known that music was present because organists, string players, singers, and dancers were brought in from Europe. 

More is known about music in the missions of the Southwest. Spanish explorers and missionaries began to travel to this region from Mexico in the 1540s. The first missions were established in present-day New Mexico in the 1590s, in California in the early 1600s, and Texas in 1682. “Alabado” (“Song of Praise”) was possibly the first music taught to native converts in the mission settlements in present-day Texas.

Franciscan mission settlements in America led to an infusion of Spanish religious music that survives to the present day. In the early 1520s the Spanish conquistadors were charged with settling New Spain (all land north of the Isthmus of Panama was under Spanish control). This later came to include upper and lower California, the area that is now the central and southwestern portion of the United States, and territory eastward along the Gulf of Mexico to Florida.

In 1655 London music publisher John Playford wrote, “The first and chief Use of Musick is for the Service and Praise of God, whose gift it is” (Chase, p. 4). Such was the early New England colonists’ attitude toward music. Puritans, in particular, used music for worship and to maintain high moral standards. The source of the Puritans’ music was the biblical Psalms, brought together in printed collections called psalters.

Although the Puritans brought psalters with them to Massachusetts, in 1640 they published their own, known informally as the Bay Psalm Book, the first book published in the English-speaking colonies. Compared to their earlier psalters published in Europe, the Bay Psalm Book featured simplified poetry and meter and stricter adherence to the text of the Bible. The psalms were set in only a few poetic meters, so only a few tunes were needed to sing the whole book. After the minister chose the psalm text, he would select a tune to fit. “Old Hundred,” for example, was used as the music for a number of psalm texts.

Later generations of colonists, however, became so familiar with the psalm tunes that the printed psalters fell into disuse. Left to sing from memory, the worshipers grew to rely on a diminishing number of familiar psalm tunes. The singing grew slower and less coordinated, leading some church leaders to criticize what they saw as a general decline in the quality of psalmody.

Several factors contributed to this decline in psalm singing in the late 1600s. Young singers were not given instruction in singing the psalm tunes, and singing from the shrinking list of available tunes became tiresome and tedious. The poor singing may also have been a reflection of deeper changes. The religious fervor of the Puritan immigrants dampened in succeeding generations as New England became more like the Mid-Atlantic and Southern colonies, which had been founded for commercial, rather than religious, motives.

Changing relations with Native Americans may have also contributed to the decline of psalm singing. Between the Pequot War (1636–38) and King Philip’s War (1675–76) the Puritans established seven missionary towns in New England where they sought to convert indigenous people to Christianity. The missionaries translated psalms into Native American languages and taught the Natives to sing the psalm tunes that the Puritans had brought with them from Europe. Although the melodies were the same, the rhythms were different because Native American words often had different numbers of syllables than the original English. As musicologist Glenda Goodman explains, “The English psalm tunes were stretched or squeezed to accommodate the Massachusett dialect” (Goodman, p. 814).

European observers often commented on the unique rhythms of translated psalms. For example, Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Endecott once noted that in a meeting with Native Americans “there was a Psalme sung in the Indian tongue, and Indian meeter.” Similarly, missionary John Eliot commented that Native Americans in the missions had “Harmony and Tunes which they sing, but the matter is not in Meeter” (qtd. in Goodman, p. 814).

Controversy arose in the missions in September of 1674. Uncas, sachem of Mohegan, wanted to maintain dominion over Wabquissit and did not appreciate when the missionaries encouraged the Native people of the region to pray to God. The following June saw the beginning of King Philip’s War between the colonists and the Wampanoag, and the fighting lasted until August of 1676. One incident, recorded in a written report by Captain Thomas Wheeler, illustrates the place of music in the conflict. Wheeler described what eighty colonists witnessed when they barricaded themselves in a house during an assault on the town of Brookfield:

They [Native Americans] continued shooting & shouting, & proceeded in their former wickedness blaspheming the Name of the Lord, and reproaching us his Afflicted Servants, scoffing at our prayers as they were sending in their shot upon all quarters of the house. And many of them went to the Town meeting house (which was, within twenty Rods of the house in which we were) who mocked saying, Come & pray, & sing Psalms, & in Contempt made an hideous noise somewhat resembling singing.

Psalm singing, once a force of unity between colonists and Native Americans, became in this instance a tool of mockery and violence against the colonists. Once a symbol of community, psalm singing became a symbol of division.

In the early 1700s a movement arose among the colonists to reinvigorate psalm singing by advancing singing from printed music. A controversy arose between those who favored the old way of singing, in the oral tradition, and those who advanced “singing by note” from printed music. Defenders of the oral tradition upheld the right of congregants to sing the psalms in their own individual styles. The reformers wanted whole congregations to sing so that the words, harmonies, and rhythms were intelligible to all. They argued that the “old way” was uncoordinated and that regularized singing from printed music would be pleasing to God.

The Great Awakening of the mid-1700s brought about many changes throughout the colonies. The revival swept through the colonies from Nova Scotia to Georgia and united them in a new attitude toward religion. The revivalists preached a ministry based more on an individual’s inner feelings toward a loving God rather than unquestioning subservience to an all-powerful God. Around 1740, the preaching of George Whitfield, in particular, invigorated the enthusiasm of lay people throughout the colonies and led to freer expression of religion, evidenced by the introduction of several new religious sects.

People expressed their newfound religious fervor by singing hymns. Although hymns were included in the earlier psalters, they were not sung as often as the psalms and were usually paraphrases of psalm texts sung to the same tunes as the psalms. In contrast, the new hymns featured newly written texts that merely drew on the stories and prophecies of the Bible, making them much more flexible for expressing a wide range of beliefs and feelings. Moreover, whereas psalm texts were not changeable (because they were sacred texts from the Bible), hymns could be written on almost any topic, which made them especially attractive to new sects that sprang up during the Great Awakening. Using the hymns of Isaac Watts (1674–1748) of England as a starting point, the varied religious groups in the new nation employed hymns to express their faith and independence. Baptists, for example, adapted folk tunes for their hymn settings as a means of making the melodies accessible to all. Hymn-singing even accompanied dancing in some sects. 

A 1775 edition of a book by Isaac Watts. U. of Otago.The music of the colonies during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries was largely imported to America. The English, Scottish, Dutch, French, and Spanish brought religious music, ballads (narrative songs), and folk songs. Many of the ballads dealt with the reasons the immigrants left their homes in Europe. For example, “The Duke’s Defeat of the Rebels” reflects the attitude of the British during the Scottish rebellion, which prompted many Scots to flee their homeland and seek out a better life in North America. Songs and ballads reported the tragedies and exciting events of the day and were also vehicles for awakening virtue, satirizing society, and generally “cheering the drooping mind.” Work songs eased the monotony and labor of sailing, rowing, harvesting, weaving, and other manual occupations.

Informal social activities brought together whole communities—white and Black—for house-raisings, threshings, cornhuskings, and maple sugaring, which were invariably followed by eating, singing, and dancing to someone’s fiddle. Between such communal work-socials, people gathered at taverns to dance and sing ballads (Southern, p. 42).

Ballads from this period are narrative songs that often relate true stories or legends in several dozen verses. Through repetition, the tunes of these ballads became extremely well-known and were recycled as different lyrics were set to the same melody. As the colonists’ lives changed, they wrote new texts, but the music was less easily conceived. Thus, old tunes, perhaps hundreds of years old, were used again and again for both sacred and secular texts. This led to some variations in the tunes, since they were sometimes embellished or altered as they were fitted to new words, but the tunes are recognizable in spite of discrepancies.

One of the most widely known of the English ballads is “Children in the Woods.” This ballad illustrates the prevailing attitude toward children, which often viewed them as commodities. Children were required to help around the farm or other business, which they inherited when their parents died. Because the mortality rate for children was high, as was the birth rate, children were valued less for their inherent worth as people than for their usefulness.

The colonization of North America was also a topic for ballads in England. Songs such as “A Friendly Invitation to a New Plantation” encouraged potential immigrants to leave England and head for the New World. Many songs were published to lure people to the colonies.

Songs throughout the middle part of the eighteenth century often commemorated events of the French and Indian War. Ballads eulogized famous heroes such as General James Wolfe and described battles such as the 1759 siege of Quebec. The conflict with the French in the North limited the influence of French culture in the southern part of the United States.

In the 1740s only 8% of the colonists lived in towns, the largest of which were Boston (population 12,000); Philadelphia (10,000); New York (7,000); Newport, Virginia (3,800); and Charleston, South Carolina (3,500). In these cities, particularly Charleston, which was regarded as the cultural center of the South, the “ballad opera” became a popular form of entertainment toward the mid-1700s. Ballad operas were theatrical performances featuring farcical or extravagant plots with spoken dialogue interspersed with songs. At first existing ballads or folk songs were fitted with new words. Later, new music was composed especially for the play.

The Prisoner's Opera (1730), one of the earliest and most famous of ballad operas, spoofed both serious Italian opera and the morality of the politicians of the day. “Welcome, Welcome, Brother Debtor” made its debut in that ballad opera but, like show tunes today, achieved wide popularity on its own.

As the English settled on the eastern shores of Central and North America, the French colonized the northern and central parts. The French in Canada, however, were often not settlers but “voyageurs” (explorers or guides) or “coureurs-de-bois” (woodsmen) who made their living through hunting and trapping in Canada, around the Great Lakes, and throughout the Mississippi Valley. They brought along their songs and adapted them to their trade. 

Throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, “chansons d’aviron” (rowing songs) were sung on long river voyages as well as portages between the waterways. These songs accompanied the paddling rhythms of long, heavy canoes in regular, strongly accented metrical organization, helping eight-to-twelve-man crews paddle in unison. These songs usually had many verses (fifty to sixty). Each member of the crew would take turns singing the lead part, while the rest of the crew carried the refrain. The themes were usually romantic stories. The “mal d’amour” group of songs, literally “sick of love,” were especially popular. Songs of the new country—“La rose blanche,” “Voila l’automne qui arrive”—were also popular. Voyageur songs sometimes gossiped about the voyageurs themselves. “En roulant ma boule,” with its repetitive text and multiple verses, was a popular song of the voyageurs used to distract the oarsmen from the long hours of rowing.

One of the places the French made a permanent settlement was Acadia, founded in 1604 in what is now Nova Scotia. The colony was continually contested by the English, who claimed the same lands. Although the area was turned over to Britain in 1713, the French settlers continued to farm the area. In 1755, just prior to the onset of the French and Indian War, the British removed more than six-thousand French neutrals from their homes in the northern territory because they would not swear allegiance to the British. The Acadians were then parceled out among several British colonies in a process of deportation while their lands were confiscated and often destroyed. Many made their way south to French-held Louisiana, bringing their distinct music with them. Today’s Cajuns and their music are descendants of the Acadians.

African Americans, who had been forcibly uprooted from their homes and brought overseas as forced laborers, had to adjust to multiple new cultures. As they struggled to adapt to their new lives, they had to learn the language and culture of their captors without any instruction and often without the support of their peers who often spoke different African languages. Some related musical traditions helped bridge those gaps for enslaved Africans and became the basis for a shared musical vocabulary that would develop into an African American sound.

Music revolved around work, play, and religion for Blacks in both the North and South. As long as they remembered them, they sang songs brought over from Africa. They picked up the psalms, hymns, ballads, and folk songs of white settlers. And they began to make up new songs in their new languages, incorporating the elements of newly learned music with traditions passed down from Africa.

It was common for enslavers to try to control their enslaved people by suppressing communal musical practices. These enslavers feared that large gatherings could lead to large-scale rebellion. Among the enslaved, recreation, what little there was, revolved around dancing and singing (not unlike their white counterparts in the middle and southern colonies). Dancing might have been accompanied by homemade fiddles or by percussion of slapping their hands against their thighs and stomping their heels. While the dancing and music seemed to have been essentially African, the singing was in English. A favorite diversion was singing songs that poked fun at their enslavers, improvising verses as they sang. Each singer took turns improvising verses and trying to outdo the last.

In the 1600s and 1700s religious instruction was not reserved for church but was a part of everyday life. Many churchgoing people in the North—Congregationalists in New England, Dutch Reformed in New York, Moravians in Pennsylvania—were concerned for the souls of the Africans among them and included them in religious instruction, which heavily featured Psalm singing and later hymn singing. Religious instruction in the South also included teaching psalms and hymns, but not all southern enslavers favored converting enslaved people to Christianity, fearing all occasions—even church—that might bring large groups of slaves together where they could possibly plan uprisings.

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