Music in Colonial & Revolutionary America

The vast majority of music performed and heard in the colonies of America was melodies carried down from generation to generation over the centuries; ballads and bawdy drinking songs that told stories of love, adventures, battles, political strife, and humorous tales.   Hymns both secular and sacred were always popular and many new ones were composed by Americans in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Instruments were usually played solo and occasionally with another instrumentalist. The great western composers for orchestra and large ensembles, such as Handel, Vivaldi, Haydn, etc., were not present during the early part of the eighteenth century. But by the late 1780’s, trained musicians forming orchestras became more commonplace. In 1787, a performance by Philadelphia’s Uranian Society (founded to improve church music) included a 250 voice chorus and a fifty piece orchestra. They performed concertos, overtures, and anthems along with Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus for 2,000 patrons.

Though simple rhymes were popular then as now (Three Blind Mice, Pop goes the Weasel, The Bear Went over the Mountain, etc.), there were basically three types of music sung and performed in colonial America: traditional songs, broadside ballads, and hymns.   By far the largest number of songs was traditional melodies considered “Tavern Songs.”   These songs were not limited to one’s particular station in life; being sung at special occasions and inns catering to both the wealthy elite and the lowly servant.

Traditional Songs

The colonial tavern, inn, ordinary, or public house (now shortened to pub), provided overnight accommodations to travelers and dotted the colonial landscape.  From elegant settings to base, squalid conditions, all taverns provided alcohol drink and food in one location attended by guests and community members. Toasts and common songs brought people of all stations together. Taverns were male domains where men drank heavily, cursed frequently, gambled, fenced goods, passed money, and fought – at times resulting in murder. Women rarely set foot in a tavern unless she was traveling with a male companion or were a prostitute. Occasionally dances were arranged which allowed women who entered and exited separately from the men.

Songs sung in taverns was usually performed by patrons for their own entertainment singing solo or in large groups. Tavern owners rarely hired musicians to perform. Entertainers would show up at a tavern hoping to entertain the patrons, making them happy enough to make a donation. These musicians often mixed ballads of laments that were subdued and reflective, with rowdy drinking songs that encouraged the clientele to join in.   These musicians often played an instrument. The violin was most common followed by the flute, fife, and trumpet. The Pochette or “traveling violin” was small and very portable. Occasionally tavern owners would own instruments and provide them for the musician’s use such as a violin or harpsichord. Most performers made their own instruments and composed many of their own ballads.

These traditional songs were never written down; passed orally from generation to generation. Most originated in the British Isles. This included drinking songs, country dances, and English and Irish airs. Because many Scotts settled in the Americas, the colonies became rich in their music. Some of the many popular songs included: Highland Laddie, The Fly, Lillibullero, The Children in the Woods (tale about death of two orphans caused by an uncle’s greed for their inheritance), The Spanish Lady (sufferings of a Spanish woman at the hands of her English captors), I Once Loved a Lace (of love lost), Leezie Lindsay (of love gained), and Nottingham Ale (whose title indicates a popular drinking song).

Broadside Ballads

Enslaved African Americans brought the banjo from Africa. Making their own instruments from carved wood and skins.

By the eighteenth century, there was interest in writing down traditional songs and publishing them into analogies.   The name broadside was derived from the sheets of paper upon which the song was written. Themes included events of both current and historical with subject matter from crime and love to political situations. It included the many verses or stanzas of the song, usually an illustration, and directions to sing the tune to a common song. This was before the commercial age of nineteenth century published sheet music that was sold in large quantities.   Often these traditional analogies would be purchased alongside analogies of the great European masters.   Thomas Jefferson would have on the shelves of his library analogies of Haydn, Handel, and Vivaldi alongside a broadside of “Chevy Chase”, a popular ballad of fighting knights with over a hundred stanzas.

Revolutionary Era Composer William Billings

Let tyrants shake their iron rod,

And slavery clank her galling chains,

We fear them not, we trust in God,

New England’s God forever reins.

from Chester by Billings

William Billings

William Billings (October 7, 1746 – September 26, 1800) was among the earliest American composer emerging from New England psalm compositions. He was the most influential and prolific composer in the colonies about the time of the American Revolution. According to a 1782 index of vocal works by Americans, he is credited with 226 of the 264 religious songs composed in America.

Billings was born and died in Boston in poverty leaving a wife with six children. He had a withered arm, one leg of a different length, and went blind in one eye by 1790. He was what we would now consider an amateur musician, supporting himself in many various fields: leather tanner, street cleaner, and hogreeve (town officer responsible for impounding stray hogs). It was said that “Mr. Billings did not have an address [and had an] uncommon negligence of person.”

He published his first set of songs in 1770 called The New England Psalm Singer. He followed this with The Singing Master’s Assistant (1778), Music in Miniature (1779), The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement (1781), The Suffolk Harmony (1786), and The Continental Harmony (1794).

Fife and Drum

Many of his works were fugues which Billings once described as “notes flying after each other, altho’ not always after the same sound.” Most of his texts came from the poetry of Isaac Watts.   He wrote his own text to about a dozen of his compositions. He often wrote long prefixes to his works in which he explained the rudiments of music and how his work should be performed.

As a singing master, he was involved in starting singing schools throughout his life. In1769, at age 23, an announcement was printed in the Boston Gazette: “John Barrey & William Billings begs leave to inform the Publick, that they propose to open a Singing School This Night… where any person inclining to learn to sing may attend…”

He worked tirelessly his whole life at both music and supporting his family. Copyright laws were primitive during his lifetime so he made very little if any money from his many compositions. By the time the copyright laws were strengthened, it was too late for Billings. His most popular tunes were already reprinted in many other people’s collections that were considered permanently copyright free.

Colonial Church Choir

Important Events in American Musical History 1767-1796

1767    Andrew Barton published libretto to the first American written opera The Disappointment. Two acts performed in NYC.

1769    First American harpsichord made in Boston (September), by John Harris.

1770    First performance in the colonies of the nearly complete version of Handel’s Messiah At Trinity Church, New York City.

1771    David Propert gave first American piano concert at Boston

1774    First American pianoforte made in Philadelphia by John Behrent.

1786    First regularly issued musical publication, Daniel Read’s American Musical Magazine. It appeared on January 16th in New Haven, Connecticut.

1787    First pipe organ west of Allegheny Mountains built in Cookstown, PA.

1788    Francis Hopkinson published the earliest American composed secular songbook, Seven Songs for the Harpsichord or Piano Forte (November)

1789    John Fredrich Peter composed the first American authored music for strings: Six quintets for two violins, two violas, and cello.

1790    Alexander Reinagle of Philadelphia composed the earliest known piano music written in the new United States: four sonatas.

1791    The first opera house in New Orleans, Le Theatre de St. Pierre, held its premier.

1794    The second American authored opera, James Hewitt’s Tammany, March 3, New York.

1796    Third and fourth American written operas performed at New York: The Archers, or The Mountaineers of Switzerland – libretto by William Dunlap, music by Benjamin Carr) and Edwin and Angelina – libretto by Elihu Smith and music by Victor Pelissier.

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Chase, Gilbert. America’s Music from the Pilgrims to the Present. 1987: University of Illinois Press, Urbana-Champaign, IL.

Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life History. 2001: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, NY.

Salinger, Sharon V. Taverns and Drinking in Early America. 2002: John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland

Silverman, Kenneth. A Cultural History of the American Revolution…1763-1789. 1976: Columbia University Press, New York, NY.

Thompson, Peter. Rum, Punch and Revolution and Public Life in 18th Century Philadelphia. 2011: University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, PA.

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