1600-1754: Music

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Old World Traditions. The European settlers of North America brought with them their own instruments, music, and musical traditions. Except in the Spanish Southwest, where there was some crossover in both directions, colonists were little influenced by the music of Native Americans. Little is known about the early music of the Louisiana Territory. In the British colonies, as with the other arts the prevailing trends in music came from England.

African American Music. While the music of African Americans eventually had a widespread and deep-seated impact on the evolution of American music, during the colonial period its influence seemed minimal. African Americans preserved their musical traditions in the slave quarters of the great plantations, singing and playing homemade African-style drums and reed and string instruments. One such instrument was a banjer or banjar, brought from West Africa as early as the seventeenth century. A gourd with an attached handle and four catgut strings, it was the precursor of the banjo, which American instrument manufacturers began making in the nineteenth century. The first European instruments played by African Americansas early as the 1690swere violins, or fiddles, sometimes homemade but other times given to them by white masters. Some slave owners also had their slaves taught to play European-style music for white audiences. Over time black musicians began to incorporate their own musical ideas into European music and eventually wrote music that integrated aspects of both musical traditions.

Religious Music in the Southwest. Spanish missionaries in the Southwest used music as a means of religious education and even encouraged Native Americans to compose music in the European tradition. Enthusiastic, Native American choirs learned not only formal liturgical music but also the folk carols and other traditional religious songs of the Spanish settlers. Franciscans also created Christian music and drama to go with or build on the traditional feasts and ceremonies of Native Americans. Though much of this music is lost, some evolved to become part of the folk tradition of the Southwest.

Religious Music in the British Colonies. Although they used different psalters, the various colonial churches all followed John Calvins dictum that worship services should include singing versifications of the Old Testament Psalms. The Pilgrims and Puritans of seventeenth-century New England considered professional singers, the singing of parts, and any sort of musical accompaniment to be popish excesses, but even denominations that did not oppose these practices did not employ them. Organs and most other instruments were too expensive for early colonial churches, and few parishioners were trained singers.

Lining Out. When the typical congregation sang a hymn, a deacon or clerk announced which tune would be sung (usually from a choice of only four or five melodies) and then read out each line before it was sung. As memories of church music in England grew dimmer and fewer and fewer churchgoers could read the music printed in increasingly scarce music books, American music became dramatically differentand worsein comparison to that of England. Especially among the rugged individualists of New England, everyone seemed to sing a different tune and sometimes slipped from one melody to another while paying no attention to tempo. The result, according to Reverend Thomas Walter, was a noise so hideous and disorderly, as is bad beyond expression.

Reform. By the turn of the eighteenth century ministers throughout the colonies were calling for schools to instruct people in reading music and singing psalms. Anglican singing instruction began in Maryland as early as 1699; there were singing classes in Virginia in 1710-1711; and the first school for psalmody was advertised in Boston in 1714. Such schools were most popular in New England, where many were in operation from 1720 to about 1750, after clergymen such as Benjamin Colman, Thomas Symmes, Cotton Mather, and Thomas Walter spoke out in favor of singing reform. Once Congregationalists accepted singing reform, they began appointing choristers to sound the first note by voice or pitch pipe and then lead the singing. The use of the pitch pipe aroused controversy because some traditionalists considered it a violation of the rule forbidding musical instruments. Many of the same people were also opposed when some young singing-school graduates began to ask that they be allowed to sit together and perform some of the religious songs and anthems they had learned. The first New England church to agree to such a request was the West Church in Boston, which designated singers seats in 1754. By the end of the 1760s twenty-three churches in New England had made similar provisions.

Church Organs. With Puritans debating the use of pitch pipes, it is no surprise that the first organ in a Congregational church was not installed until 1770 (in Providence, Rhode Island). Other denominations began to buy organs as soon as they could afford them. The Anglican Kings Chapel in Boston installed an organ in 1714, and the other two Anglican churches in the city had them by 1744. Other Anglican churches that bought organs during the first half of the eighteenth century include Saint Philips Church, Charleston, South Carolina (1728); Christ Church, Philadelphia (1728); Trinity Church, Newport, Rhode Island (1733); and Trinity Church, New York City (1737). Between 1737 and 1767 five Virginia churches also installed organs. The first known organ in New York City was installed at the Dutch Reformed Church in 1724.

American Religious Music. Until the second half of the eighteenth century little original music of any sort was composed in the colonies. The first piece of new music, secular or sacred, written in America may be Southwell New Tune, a brief hymn published in Reverend Thomas Walters The Grounds and Rules of Mustek Explained (1721), a popular manual for would-be singers. The 1723 edition of John Tuftss A Very Plain and Easy Introduction to the Art of Singing Psalm Tunes (first published in 1721) includes another tune, 100 Psalm Tune New, that was probably written in America.

Secular Music. While colonists brought their own musical traditions with them, their music began to evolve over time. In the Southwest ancient romances of European wars gave way to ballads that reflected the everyday experiences of the settlers, who were making history of their own. In the British colonies new lyrics on contemporary topics were fitted to old ballad or hymn tunes, orespecially in the eighteenth centuryto new music brought from England, such as marches or stage and opera music by composers such as Henry Purcell and George Frideric Handel. While poorer people continued to enjoy folk music and dancing in the eighteenth century, prosperous colonists wanted to learn the latest trends in music and dancing among aristocratic circles in England. They bought instruments, music, and dancing books and hired professional music and dancing masters. They also enjoyed listening to British and Continental performers.

Secular Music in New England. Despite modern beliefs to the contrary, music and dancing were popular forms of recreation among early Puritans. The authorities intervened only when they thought the revelry had become excessive. In the seventeenth century New En-glanders sang traditional English ballads, and by the eighteenth century prosperous Bostonians were eager to hear new compositions by Handel and other composers in England. In fact Boston led the way in supporting musical culture in the colonies. Thomas Brattle, a wealthy Boston merchant, installed an organ in his home in 1711 and four years later donated another to Kings Chapel. Edward Enstone, who arrived from England in 1715 to be organist there, started a music and dancing school and began holding public balls. By 1717 he had also opened a music store, where he sold and repaired musical instruments, as well as offering music and musical instruction books. In 1729 he sponsored the first documented public concert held in the colonies. The following year the Mens Musical Society of Boston sponsored a concert in honor of Saint Cecilia, patron saint of music.

The Middle Colonies. While settlers of the mid-Atlantic region brought diverse musical traditions, only a few survived the influx of British influence in the eighteenth century: English and Scottish settlers of remote areas in the Appalachians kept their ballads and tunes uncorrupted by new influences into the twentieth century. The similarly isolated French settlers of northern New England also maintained their musical traditions, as did some of the German musicians of Pennsylvania. The Moravian communities of Pennsylvania and North Carolina were well known in the eighteenth century for their vast repertoires of European sacred and secular music and for their expertise in performing and composing such music. An early documented private concert was held in 1710 in New York City, where in 1714 musicians were hired for a parade and ball celebrating the coronation of George I. The Philadelphia Assembly, a dancing club founded in 1748, also encouraged musical performance.


Thomas Morton took an unorthodox view of the Puritan mission in his New English Canaan (1637), in which he described the Native Americans he met in Massachusetts as more full of humanity than his fellow Englishmen in nearby Plymouth. A non-Puritan, Morton established a trading post called Merry Mount in present-day Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1625 and invited local Indians to dance around a maypole he had erected. This revelry angered his Puritan neighbors andalong with charges that he was selling firearms to the Indiansresulted in his arrest and deportation to England for trial in 1628. He was acquitted and returned to Merry Mount the following year, but Gov. John Endicott, who had chopped down the maypole while Morton was gone, arrested him again in 1630, confiscating his property, burning down his house, and shipping him back to England once again. Morton took his revenge on the Puritans in New English Canaan, in which he also included a glowing description of the region. He returned in 1643, and after a series of run-ins with Massachusetts authorities, he settled in Maine. Nathaniel Hawthorne based his 1836 short story The May-Pole of Merry Mount on the events at Mortons trading post.

Source: Emory Elliott, ed., American Colonial Writers, 1606-1734, Dicitionary ofLiterary Biography, volume 24 (Columbia, S.C.: Bruccoli Clark / Detroit: Gale Research, 1984).

The Southern Colonies. By the eighteenth century secular music was exceptionally popular in the South, where people from outlying plantations often came together for only a few weeks or months of the year during sessions of the courts or legislatures. During that time they attended concerts, plays, and balls and took home the music they heard at those events. By 1735 musicians in Charleston, South Carolina, had begun giving public concerts honoring Saint Cecilia. There were also private music clubs, including the Saint Cecilia Society of Charleston, founded in 1762. An earlier group was the Tuesday Club of Annapolis, Maryland, which met from May 1745 until February 1756 and fostered its members literary and musical interests. By 1752 the club included five string players, two flute players, a keyboardist, and perhaps a bassoonist. Songs written by several members for performance at club meetings may be the earliest secular music written in America.


Gilbert Chase, Americas Music, from the Pilgrims to the Present, third edition, revised (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987);

Jacob Ernest Cooke, ed., Encyclopedia of the North American Colonies, volume 3 (New York: Scribners, 1993).


1600-1754: Music