Western Music Comes to America

The Early Years - The Colonist Influence.

As we pointed out in our article "The Dead Zone of American Popular Music or, how the music stopped from 1860 - 1890", American music fell upon hard times in the second half of the 19th century. During that period, America looked back to Europe and her early origins and for a few years, seemingly stopped producing truly American original music. Yet, 240 years earlier, England and Europe were the first sources of Western music brought to the shores of America by the early colonists. Despite the similarity of origins during those two eras, the type and style of music that first came to America was far different from that of the late 19th century. Of course, Native Americans already had developed a rich tapestry of music long before the settlers arrived from Europe. To learn something about Native American music, see our special article about the intersection of Native American and popular music.

The earliest European settlers in America, those of the fated Roanoke settlement of 1588 left no record of what music they may have brought to America. We can only guess but it is likely that most of what they may have brought were songs of their memory; English folk songs, a sea song or two and possibly the tunes of a few hymns¹. That rough hewn group seemed unlikely candidates of the arts and unfortunately, whatever music they did bring perished along with them and their colony.

In England before the famed Mayflower voyage to America, a rift had been set between the Royalists and Puritans. That struggle was based primarily on religion with the Royalists upholding the established Church of England and its traditions while the Calvinists battled for the simplest forms of worship and the most austere piety.² Within the group of Calvinist "dissenters", a further schism developed.  Those who sought to "purify" the English church began to call themselves Puritans.  To the other group, purification was impossible and they decided to separate themselves entirely.  These separatists were the group that we now know as the Pilgrims, who came to America aboard the Mayflower in 1620 to found the Plymouth Colony. In terms of the music of the two groups, for a variety of reasons it would ultimately make no difference.  First and foremost, the schism between the two groups had only to do with how to treat the English church.  In terms of their belief system and the manner in which they viewed how music should be presented, they were Calvinists.  Additionally, at the end of the first winter, only 53 of the original complement of approximately 130 Pilgrims and ship's crew were still alive.  The Plymouth Colony would be subsumed by the larger Massachusetts Bay Colony, founded by the Puritans.

The English poet and historian Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859), summed up the Puritanical views as:

"The dress, the deportment, the language, the studies, the amusements of this rigid sect were regulated on principles resembling those of the Pharisees, who, proud of their washed hands and broad phylacteries, taunted the Redeemer as a Sabbath-breaker and a wine-bibber. It was a sin to hang garlands on the May-Pole, to drink to a friend's health, to fly a hawk, to hunt a stag, to play at chess, to wear love locks, to put starch into a ruff, to touch the virginals and to read the Faerie Queen"³

The ban on "fun" and lightness extended to the arts and virtually all amusements of the times. So given that music other than liturgical was in ill repute at the time, when those who espoused the Puritan religious Psalm19views came to America, conditions were not conducive to the growth of music as a form of entertainment. In the Puritan world, music was only to be used to praise God and worship so it comes as no surprise that the music brought to America was limited to Psaltery, simple music based on the Psalms. The one musical document we know was brought to America by the group commonly known as the Pilgrims was their own Psalter translated from the Dutch by Henry Ainsworth which included forty-eight un-harmonized tunes which had been published in Amsterdam in 1612. The source for that psalter was the Genevan Psalter first published in 1565. To the right is Psalm 19 from the Genevan Psalter. Click the image or here to hear the music.

The Puritan approach did not allow harmony in their singing as it was considered frivolous so the early music was only simple melody. If there were any other music brought to America by the Pilgrims, it is undocumented. The Genevan Psalter continued in use up to and after the Colony was merged with Massachusetts Bay in 1691.

On the issue of harmony and accompaniment, it is unlikely that the earliest settlers who shared strict religious values brought any musical instruments with them from England as they also considered the use of accompaniment sinful so all the psalms were sung unaccompanied and without harmony.

However, it is probable that some of the crew who were aboard the Mayflower did bring instruments since sea shanties and popular song were common diversions aboard ships on long voyages. Five of the crew were hired by the Pilgrims to stay with the colony for one year. If any of them were musically inclined it is possible they brought the first European instruments to America. Most likely would have been the pipes, fiddle and perhaps guitar or lute. Two of the crew died during the first winter, two returned to England and the ships cooper, John Alden remained and joined the settlers on a permanent basis.

When the Dutch came from Holland and established New Amsterdam in 1628, they too brought their psalter and began to hold services of the Dutch Reformed Church. They sang from the diamond shaped notation as illustrated above. By 1664, the Dutch Company sent a schoolmaster and choir director to lead them in their musical worship.

In 1630, an eleven ship fleet anchored in Charlestown harbor and established Boston Town under John Winthrop (1587–1649), second governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and an important English Puritan leader. Once again, the music brought to America was a psalter. In this case it was the psalter of Sternhold and Hopkins which had been in use since 1562. The title page of the Psalter reveals the continuing damnation of popular music in favor of the psalms.

"Set forth and allowed to be Sung in all Churches, of all the People together, before and after Morning and Evening Prayer; and also before and after Sermons; and moreover in private Houses, for their godly Solace and comfort: laying apart all ungodly Songs and Ballads, which tend only to the nourishing of Vice, and corrupting of youth."

The vices of "ungodly" music not withstanding, early on there began an emergence of the American spirit of freedom and independence and there began a resistance to the authorized version of the Psalms. This spirit moved a group of Puritan "divines" from Boston, Roxbury and Dorchester to publish a new version of the Psalms known as The Bay Psalm Book (cover at left). Printed in Cambridge in 1640, this book was the first full-length book printed in the American Colonies.

As America was settled, the Virginian settlers were mostly comprised of Royalists who had completely different views of music. Of course they too worshiped with music and psalmody but they also brought a tradition of secular music to their colonies. The result over time was that secular music developed in the South while the Northern Colonies continued to frown on music of any type other than the psalm tunes allowed by their beliefs.

On performance, one of the psalter authors declared the manner in which certain psalms be sung. In 1621 Thomas Ravenscroft stated in the preface that:

"(I) That psalms of tribulation be sung with a low voice and in long measure:
(II) That psalms of Thanksgiving be sung with an indifferent voice, neither too loud nor too slow:
(III) That songs of rejoicing be sung with a loud voice, and in a swift and jocund measure.5"

Over the next one hundred years, psalmody and church music continued to dominate the American music scene. Over time though, with the continued influx of new settlers with different ideas of the value and uses of music, church music expanded from single line un-harmonized music to harmonized and instrumentally accompanied music. Though the Puritans continued to cling to their severe outlook of music, others brought new views and new types of music. By the mid eighteenth century an increasing number of musical publications appeared, by then most of which were published in America. As time passed, other types of music began to appear in these publications.

Perhaps the most groundbreaking of these publications was a large collection published in Boston in 1764 by Josiah Flagg that contained an astounding one hundred and sixteen tunes and two anthems that included a wide variety of music from traditional church music to the secular and military marches. The majority of the vocal music was written in four part harmony. Flagg mentioned in his preface that "We are obliged to the other side of the Atlantic chiefly for our tunes.6"

So still, the music of America was not our own but borrowed from abroad. Not only that but through the seventeenth century and well into the 18th, American music was (by most standards) boring, uninspired and severe. It would take two revolutions to change the tone and style of music in America, one of social change and the other political.

Edward Marks best summarized the music and social atmosphere of America when he wrote:

"About the only evidence that merry hearted singing and dancing were known in this early period is due to the fact that, as a seaport, Boston had many transient visitors, especially sailors, who indulged in such pleasures when ashore. Their conduct, made noisy no doubt by 'much wafte of Wine and Beer,' resulted as early as 1646, in a law forbidding dancing in ordinaries and inns under penalty of five shillings for each offense7."

He goes on to say:

"The Colonial literature of the last half of the seventeenth century, mostly an arid waste of forbidding theology, reflects the somberness of the period.8"

 Fortunately, the continued influx of colonists from various countries, social and political systems began to diversify and over time the bigotry and single minded society mellowed and began to slowly take on the attributes of the freedom of thought and actions that would soon become the America that we saw emerge at the end of the 18th century.

By 1700, Boston had become a relative boom town with well over 7,000 inhabitants and a continuing growth in the diversity of thought. Around 1712 America enjoyed the emergence of a new way of singing that went beyond the unaccompanied monotony of no harmony to a singing by written note and with harmony, accompaniment and more lightness of heart. Though still focused on the psalms, the very first musical book published in the colonies was A very plain and eafy Introduction to the Art of Singing pfalm tunes, published by the Rev. Mr. John Tufts in 1714. The songs were said to be "contrived in such a manner as that the learner may attain the skill of singing them with the greatest of ease and speed imaginable.9" The book was so successful it was published in at least 11 editions through and beyond 1744.

The small innovation the Tufts book brought shook the older generation and their severe outlook on music to its roots. They feared that it would lead to more sinful ways and some objected by saying it was

"Quakerifh and Popith and introductive of inftumental mufick; the names given to the notes are blafphemous; it is a needlefs way fince their good Fathers are gone to heaven without it; its admirers are a company of young upftarts; they fpend too much time about learning, and tarry out a-nights diforderly.10"

A second breakthrough book of music followed just six years later in 1721 when Rev. Thomas Walter of Roxbury published a book titled The Grounds and Rules of Mufick explained, or an introduction to the art of singing by note. What made this book very different is that it included not only liturgical music but secular as well including the Windsor Tune and York Tune. Another innovation strenuously objected to by the old folks was the inclusion of harmonic parts as seen at right in the excerpt of the above mentioned tunes. Hear the Windsor Tune and the York Tune in midi format.

Many readers may have noticed the irony of the statements of objection to the changes in musical style so many years ago and their similarity to the same objections raised over the course of the development of American popular song. In the early 20th century many people were shocked at the boldness and sexual innuendos that emerged in song, then in the 20's, the horrible excesses of the jazz age outraged tradition. The 50s and the introduction of Rock and Roll was yet another opportunity for the corruption of youth. It is interesting to see the continuity of objection to changes in our musical styles and how each time our music changes significantly, it is believed the music will corrupt and debase our children. Perhaps this is one of those lessons of history we fail to take into account and continue to repeat.

The continued progress of secular music and the lessening of the severity of performance led to a burst of artistic growth in music and by the first quarter of the 18th century, singing schools and performance training blossomed. As we moved towards the Revolution music continued to develop and auditoriums became extant and even the classics from Europe crept (back) into the public consciousness. Some great American leaders such as Benjamin Franklin espoused the classics and among Franklin's many inventions was a fantastic instrument called the glass harmonica for which concerti and other music was written by such musical luminaries as Mozart. The glass harmonica consisted of a series of diminishing size glass "bowls" on a rotating axle wherein the performer ran his whetted fingers across the edges to create the sound. Here is a beautiful example of the glass harmonica's innovative sound invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761. Music by Wolfgang A. Mozart. Played by French artist Thomas Bloch, exhibiting the glass harmonica in the Paris Music Museum, Nov. 29, 2007.


And so, with the growth of music in America, we find that popular music begins to blossom and that connects to our two part article about the growth of popular music in America that followed these early years. It would not be long before American composers and songwriters would emerge and rather than America's music being an import but soon to be a home grown art that would completely reverse the flow of musical art from America to the rest of the world. Continue your journey of discovery with part one of Popular Music in America.

Richard A. Reublin, July, 2012

This article published July, 2012 and is Copyright © 2012 by Richard A. Reublin and The Parlor Songs Academy. Text, images or music may not be reproduced in part or in total without express written permission of the author or a Director of the corporation. Though the songs published on this site are often in the Public Domain, MIDI renditions are protected by copyright as recorded performances.

1 One Hundred Fifty Years of Music Publishing in America, Edward B. Marks, 1933, p.1.
2 American History and Encyclopedia of Music, Irving Squire, London, 1910, p. 137.

3 Ibid., p137
4 Religion in Colonial America, Brewer, Jacques, Jones & King, University of North Carolina,
Pembroke, 2001
5 American History and Encyclopedia of Music, Irving Squire, London, 1910, p. 139
6 Ibid p. 150

 7 Marks, p 5

 8 Ibid, p. 5

 9 Ibid, p. 6

10 Ibid, p.7

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