The colorful story of America's popular music industry opens in 1620 with the separatist Puritans, who settled in the area of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Called Pilgrims because of their travels to find a land where they could practice their religion freely, the Mayflower passengers brought with them Henry Ainsworth's psalter, a collection of 150 psalm and hymn texts (just words, no music) for thirty-nine familiar melodies.
In 1630, non-separatist Puritans landed a few miles to the north, bringing with them a similar collection, the Sternhold and Hopkins psalter. By the end of the century, the groups began to merge into what finally became the Congregational Church.
The first book printed in America was a hymnal, the Bay Psalm Book (1640). Like European models, it contained only words, not music, since everyone knew the melodies to which the words had been set. Those melodies are similar to modern country and gospel music: regular phrases, simple chords, repetitive sections, straightforward "on the beat" rhythms, and melodic lines which are a little high for the normal male voice.
By the 1700s, the Eastern Seaboard was alive with industrious settlers carving out their new way of life. Among their favorite tunes were a few that are sung even today: "We Gather Together", a popular Thanksgiving hymn; "Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow", known as the Doxology but called "Old Hundred" because it was No. 100 in the Anglo-Geneva psalter of 1561; and "Auld Lang Syne", sung today by large crowds of celebrants on New Year's Eve.
In church (called a "meeting house") they sang without instruments because the elders thought that instruments had no place in formal worship. In their private homes, however, they may have sung the same hymns with instrumental accompaniment. And they undoubtedly sang their secular tunes with some kind of instrumental assistance.
Singing in the local churches was a favorite activity, and folks took to it with great enthusiasm. Some of the more eager singers, apparently, would now and then add a few notes to the basic melody, and before long the pastors were complaining that singing had deteriorated into a free-for-all with no discipline or control whatsoever.
In what has become an American characteristic, entrepreneurs saw a social need, and set out to meet it for a profit. Several enterprising pastors and musicians soon opened schools to teach note reading and correct singing.
As early as 1721, John Tufts, pastor at the Second Church in Newbury, Massachusetts, wrote a music instruction book in which he recommended the "fa-sol-la-mi" system of notation much used in England. Rev. Thomas Walter wrote a similar book, "Fitted to the meanest Capacities", and he complained about the "tortured and twisted" manner of church singing which produced "confused and disorderly Noises."
Andrew Law (1748-1821), William Billings (1746-1800), James Lyon (1735-1794), and many other singing school masters devoted their lives to the improvement of music in the colonies. Writing and publishing their own music and textbooks, they traveled far and wide to conduct two-week singing classes. They were, in a sense, the first public school music teachers. Had their native musical style not been washed aside by later waves of highly trained European musicians, the history of music in America might have been substantially different.
Untrained in traditional methods, these teacher-composers produced a body of music with a kind of straightforward charm, which by European standards sounds a little crude and uninformed. Such techniques as gapped scales, unconventional chord progressions, parallel fifths and octaves, irregular phrases, unprepared suspensions, primitive contrapuntal techniques, and a fondness for melody in the tenor voice brought great criticism from the sophisticates. The singing school masters carried on, though, with considerable success. The composition style and performance traditions can still be heard today in some sections of the South.
Following Tufts, the singing school masters took a simplified approach to reading music. They modified the ancient system of solfeggio (singing by syllables rather than letter names), picked up some English variations of that system, and came up with their own American improvement by making each syllable's notation a different shape on the page. Thus the widely used shape note system came to be. The most popular of the second generation of these shape note music books was The Sacred Harp by White and King (1844). That book and other, newer, versions featuring the same shape note system are still used today, with Sacred Harp singing communities found in many areas of the United States and beyond.
The War for Independence
During the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), musical activities did not disappear from the land. There were long stretches when no fighting occurred at all, and during the winter months, music flourished in the homes, churches, public meeting places, taverns, village commons, and in the army field headquarters.
Four different kinds of musical activity were evident during the War. First, the Revolutionary Army took its signals from the many corps of fifers and drummers who were attached to each regiment. The basic information on what to do – "Reveille" (arise in the morning), "To Arms" (we're being attacked), "Pioneer's March" (camp maintenance duties) – was conveyed by the drum beat-pattern. Superimposed on the beat-pattern was a fife tune, usually a popular folk tune. The drummers and fifers were often mere boys in their teens. Each battalion had three or four of these "musicianers" in the ranks.
Second, contrary to conventional historical accounts, the Americans did have bands during the War for Independence. These little bands of, say, two flutes, an oboe, a bassoon, and perhaps a clarinet or French horn, were separate from the troops, and therefore the names of the bandsmen do not appear in the official military records. The musicians were hired independently by a battalion colonel, and they served at his pleasure only. He used them for military parades, weddings, funerals, and social events where a fife and drum unit would be too crude.
Third was a very common social event, the dancing assembly, a subscription series of dinner dances for the military top brass and local VIP's. A group of "sponsors" would meet, identify a suitable location, and hold a series of perhaps 12-15 weekly or biweekly parties – dinner, cards, dancing, games, "Songs of Liberty", and such. One of the battalion bands would provide the music. It was the historical antecedent of Saturday night at the country club in modern America.
Fourth, there was an active musical theater season during the War. English ballad operas were in vogue then, and performances were held in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia during the winter months each year of the War. The performances, with a few "professionals" and many amateurs, would be much like the community theater groups so common in America today. Unlike sophisticated European opera, ballad opera addressed itself to common people in lower class situations, and the songs were folk and popular songs with immediate appeal.
Broadsides were distributed throughout colonial America as early as the middle 1600s right up through the Revolutionary War and well beyond. A broadside was a single sheet of paper about 12" by 18" in size, on which a poem that could be sung to a familiar song was printed. Written by a local political agitator or journalist, the topic was usually highly critical, satirical, burning with strong emotions, and always witty and inventive.
Broadsides were eagerly anticipated and they quickly sold for a penny each. In addition to political events, all manner of social, topical, and just plain newsworthy items found expression in broadsides. As late as the Civil War, broadsides still served their dual purpose of information and musical entertainment.
All in all, musical life in America from the early 1600s through the War for Independence was just what might be expected. The simple folk had no time or inclination for the exalted styles and traditions of Europe.
There were some remarkable exceptions, of course. The Moravians in Pennsylvania formed trombone choirs and singing societies to perform classical music. And in the South, classical music was an integral part of the social life of the wealthy plantation owners. Concerts were occasionally presented by resident church organists, and traveling musicians and singers would often perform in the large room of a plantation mansion.
The music that leads to the subject of this book, however, was mostly functional and utilitarian – perfectly consistent with the life style of that mixed crowd of robust individuals known as "the colonists".