Chapter 4
European-American Traditions

            The Revolutionary War was a most unusual conflict in many ways.  It was as much an economic conflict as it was a political conflict.  The many aspiring businessmen in the colonies saw the British taxation policies in a financial light first, then in a philosophical light.  Indeed, only one-third of the colonists wanted to break away from England.  Another third wanted to remain a loyal British colony, and the final third didn't care much one way or the other.

            The War was also unusual because it was driven by aristocrats – highly sophisticated and immensely wealthy upper-class citizens.  For this reason, there were few cases of wanton cruelty, savage killing for pleasure, and the other many barbaric acts so common to most wars.  And there were several long months during the winter each year when no fighting was done by either side.

            During those winter months, the colonists began to cultivate their own talents and ingenuity.  The War cut off most European trade, and the colonists now had to provide for themselves such routine items as books, jewelry, musical instruments, furniture, household utensils, clothing, glass, and tools.

            It was the beginning, the real beginning, of that special thing called the American character.  Margaret Mead, Jacques Barzun and many others have spoken cogently about it.  It's that special kind of brash and breezy confidence with a youthful innocence and arrogance to it.  It's a unique optimism in all matters – spiritual, financial, philosophical, and moral.  It's a pronounced suspicion of anything truly intellectual or refined.

            In popular music, two major traditions began to take shape in American society, the European-American heritage, discussed now, and the African-American heritage, discussed in the next chapter.  The European-American heritage appeared in two distinct styles: mainstream Anglo-Saxon music and a specialized Anglo-Celtic music. 



            This is the music that eventually leads to MOR (middle-of-the-road) popular music – Bing Crosby, Julie Andrews, Barbra Streisand, and Frank Sinatra.  Its roots lie in the late 1700s and early 1800s when certain talented musicians began to ply their skills for commercial gain.  Prior to that time, most musicians had been farmers or tradesfolk in their primary livelihood.  Three major areas are evident.


Standard Fare

            As the citizens of the new nation turned their attention from the War back to their normal daily affairs, they sang a plentiful supply of standard popular songs with predictable topics: love, fulfilled and unfulfilled; shipwrecks, storms, and other calamities; the excitement of city (or village) life; the serenity of country life; songs for and against alcohol; songs about fashions, trends, and diversions; novelty songs; and sentimental ballads.

            Benjamin Carr (1768-1831), Raynor Taylor (1747-1825), James Hewitt (1770-1827), and several other foreign-born musicians were active and successful composers of popular sheet music, but the first American-born pop music composer seems to have been a blind songwriter, Oliver Shaw (1779-1848).  Although known mostly for his religious compositions and classical organ skills, Shaw turned out several marches and songs that were highly respected at the time.  One of his tunes, "There's Nothing True but Heav'n", brought in $1,500 in sales – quite a bit of money for a religious pop tune.

            The first songster (collection or anthology) came out in 1789, The American Miscellany, a selection of popular verses to be sung to familiar melodies.  It was about the size of a modern vest pocket appointment calendar, and was designed to be used on a moment's notice on any occasion.

            Francis Hopkinson's  (1737-1791) "My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free" (1759), the first known secular pop tune by a native American composer, and Alexander Reinagle's (1756-1809) "I Have a Silent Sorrow Here" (1799) seem to have been sung often.


Political and War Songs

            Broadsides for and against foreign entanglements for the new nation flourished, and when America entered the War of 1812, a batch of new war tunes appeared.  "Yankee Doodle" was brought out again after serving so well for so long during the second half of the 1700s.  Its exact origin is still debatable, even after enormous scholarly efforts by Oscar Sonneck, S.  Foster Damon, and several others.  "Hail Columbia" (words by Joseph Hopkinson, Francis Hopkinson's son, and music by Philip Phile) first came out in 1798, and soon became one of America's favorite patriotic airs.

            By the middle of the 1800s, "Hail to the Chief" had become the official ceremonial music for the president of the country, and remains so even today.  Even though the battle occurred after the war had officially ended, Andrew Jackson's victory at New Orleans on January 8, 1814, was celebrated in a fiddle tune from Britain, "The Eighth of January".  (With a new text by Jimmy Driftwood, the tune, retitled "The Battle of New Orleans", was a giant country music hit for Johnny Horton in 1959.)

            The words to America's national anthem were written one night during the War of 1812 by Francis Scott Key.  The words fit quite well for a familiar British beer-drinking tune, "To Anacreon in Heaven".  The song grew famous over the years, and it was finally adopted as our official national anthem by an act of Congress on March 3, 1931.  Every few years there is a major campaign to adopt a new national anthem like "America" ("My Country 'Tis of Thee") or "God Bless America" – both of which are easier to sing than "The Star Spangled Banner" – but neither of which convey the perilousness of the United States' survival at a critical time in history.


Theater Music

            The first genuine American stage work came from Francis Hopkinson.  In his own words, The Temple of Minerva was "an oratorical entertainment", an allegory in praise of American and French political harmony.  Minerva is best categorized as a political ballad opera, and it represents a class of theater works very popular in early America.  The first of the genre, and still the most famous, The Beggar's Opera (1728) by John Gay, was done often in the late 1700s throughout the colonies.  It returned two hundred years later as The Three Penny Opera (1928) by Bertolt Brecht (playwright) and Kurt Weill (composer).  This show was revived off-Broadway in 1954.  Weill's big hit, "Mack the Knife", was, of course, not part of the original 1728 work.

            Dozens of these ballad operas – Tammy, The Archers, The Padlock and others – are mentioned in personal diaries and journals and in newspaper accounts of early American show business, indicating how widespread they were.  The ballad opera concept (write your own story with your own lyrics set to well-known popular tunes) is alive and well all over America, today.  Senior citizens groups, college Greek organizations, and community theater companies often put on at least one such "original" each season.

            Burlesque, too, was popular in the early 1800s.  This was not dirty jokes and strip-tease dancers, but burlesque in its original form, more of a comedy affair.  More on that later.  Minstrel shows were also popular entertainment for European-Americans, although their contents were really bastardized versions of African-American traditions.

            "Variety entertainments" seem to have been common, also.  Novelty acts, trained chickens, feats of magic wonder, strong men, midgets, jugglers, virtuoso musicians, and such were well received throughout America.  This kind of entertainment package later developed into vaudeville.


            Separate from the musical activities of the urban, middle-class Anglo-Saxons, there existed a great body of lower-class folk music.  The oral traditions of this Anglo-Celtic music (Welsh, Irish-Gaelic, and Scotch-Gaelic) go all the way back to the non-literate subcultures of the peasant serfs in the feudal societies of the late Middle Ages.

            The Anglo-Celts were a high-strung independent crowd, not given much to the polite niceties of village living, so, in the early 1700s, they began to move out of the (for them) congested cities of Boston, Philadelphia, and New York.  They moved into the Appalachian Mountains in what would eventually become the states of West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolinas, and Georgia.

            After many generations of separation from mainstream America, the mountaineers became distinctly different from their Anglo-Saxon compatriots in the big cities of the East Coast.  The whole culture – language, values and attitudes, dreams and desires, sense of justice, and music – was frozen in time for nearly one hundred fifty years.

            Not until the late 1800s did their music really come to light through the efforts of a Harvard English professor, Francis James Child (1825-1896).  In the early 1900s, Child's pioneer studies were used as the basis for five volumes of Appalachian folk songs catalogued by scholar Cecil J.  Sharp (1859-1924).  Then Bertrand H.  Bronson clarified and amplified all the previous research with several scholarly volumes from the 1950s through the 1970s.

            We find a surprising number of ballads about violent family entanglements.  "The Twa Brothers" (Child 19) tells of a boy who stabs his younger brother to death (Hamm 1983, 49).  "Earl Brand" (Child 7) is the story of a young woman who elopes with her lover.  When her father and brothers set out to bring her back, her lover ambushes them.  He is wounded in the battle, though, and goes home to his mother to die (Hamm 1983, 49).

            William, in "Fair Margaret and Sweet William" (Child 74), marries another woman, dreams of Margaret lying in her bed in a pool of blood, and goes to her house to find that she has indeed killed herself.  "The Cruel Mother" (Child 20) kills her illegitimate twins with a knife, and is then haunted by visions of them (Hamm 1983, 49).

            The details are different, but "somebody done somebody wrong songs" are still popular in Nashville.  Indeed, in many other ways – melodic intervals, irregular phrases, that high and lonesome vocal style, gapped scales, simple triadic harmonies, etc.  – colonial Anglo-Celtic music lives on, strong and healthy, even today, in the field of country music.