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Music From Colonial America

Time capsule for this episode: 1789

Imagine yourself in New England at around the time of the American Revolution. Now, put yourself in class at one of the popular singing-schools that flourished at that time. You’re there to learn how to read your notes, sing in tune, and do choral singing. Now imagine that the singing-school master has arrived. Though relatively young, he’s a formidable character: blind in one eye, with one leg shorter than the other, and a withered arm. To top it off, he has a bit of an unkempt appearance, and what one contemporary referred to as an “almost incredible propensity for taking snuff.” His booming bass voice roars out into the room, and the singing begins - led by the most famous Early American composer, William Billings.

William Billings is by far the most well-known of all the early American hymnodists, born October 7th, 1746 in Boston, Massachusetts.  He had no formal music education, and was a tanner by trade. But, he was involved with music all his life, as a singer and as a singing teacher. He was fairly successful at this – in fact, by the time he was 24 years old, he had a book of music published which was called “The New England Psalm-Singer.” This book has the distinction of being the first publication of entirely American music. The first tune in the book was called “Wake’ Ev’ry Breath.” The tune was also engraved on the cover, by a friend of Billing’s named Paul Revere.

That particular hymn is known by the name “Africa.”  Since the text has nothing to do with Africa, that may seem strange. But if you’re a person who attends a church where hymns are sung, you may have noticed that hymns are sometimes identified in hymnbook indexes by the first line and by titles such as "Old Hundredth" or "Moscow." These words are nicknames for the tunes that often carry some association with the composer or an event. Hymns are identified by both the first lines of their texts and by the names of their melodies– because hymn texts are often mixed and matched with different hymn tunes.

Patriotic themes

William Billings was about 30 years old when the American Revolution began, and there was no question where his sympathies lay in that conflict. Along with his friends Sam Adams and Paul Revere he fell most decidedly into the Patriot camp. Some of his hymns, in fact, became veritable Patriot Anthems. One of the most famous is the tune known as “Chester.”

You may have heard these at the local watering hole

“Bobbing Joe” and “Wheels of the World” are both from collections of music published in England by John Playford in the 17th century. These dances and tunes were not only popular for decades in the British Isles, but they were well-known in the American colonies too, where they would be played alongside newly-composed tunes.   That’s true of ballads, as well: songs brought over from Europe would reappear in the Americas, sometimes gaining some new lyrics along the way. That was especially true in areas like Appalachia, where many Scots-Irish folks settled.

Here’s an example - there must be dozens of old English ballads about the character of Gypsy Davy. Invariably, he steals the heart of a rich noblewoman, who dumps husband and family and runs off to live in the woods with the Gypsies. But you also find some of these ballads in the Appalachian folk tradition–like this one, “Gypsen Davy,” sung here by Custer La Rue.

Linking our world history with our music history

I wonder sometimes how many of us ever make the connection between our world history courses and our music history classes. In the late 1770's, Mozart and Haydn were working in Austria; CPE Bach was still alive, and Beethoven was a little boy. In the colonies, the American Revolution was happening.

The song “How stands the Glass around” hails from the 1720s, but it’s said that during the Revolution the Continental soldiers sang it after their disappointing defeats, and throughout the long, bitter winters in encampments like Valley Forge. We'll also hear a fiddle tune called “Soldier’s Joy” in this episode, and we’ll continue that connection with a hymn found in a collection called “The Southern Harmony,” with words by Isaac Watts and music by Lucius Chapin. Chapin was a singing school teacher, born in Springfield Massachusetts, was a fifer in the Revolutionary army, and suffered frostbite at Valley Forge. After the war he moved to Kentucky.

Country Cotillions

Country dances were very popular at the time of the American Revolution, and at around this same time the French, who were allied with the Americans in the war, introduced a type of dance called the “cotillion,” which is one of the predecessors of our square dance. Here’s the group Hesperus, with a set of three tunes from John Carr’s “First Book of Cotillions,” published in 1801, and that will be followed by a set of Jiggs from John Playford’s 1690 collection “Apollo’s Banquet.”

Featured release: The Rose of Sharon

Keeping with an early American theme, our featured release is Rose of Sharon: 100 Years of American Music, 1770-1870 performed by Ensemble Phoenix Munich under the direction of Joel Frederiksen.

This recording covers early American music from the country’s beginning to Stephen Foster and the Civil War. Joel Frederiksen notes in the recording materials, quote, “This program is like an American quilt – the individual parts are unique and very different from one another, but it comes together to form one rich tapestry.”

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