American Colonists: Music to Their Ears

There is something hidden within everyday life, tracing back to the colonial era and beyond: music! But with all those revolutionary ideas floating around, who even had time for a song? From dance tunes to psalms, the colonists enjoyed music just as much as we do today.

Sometimes referred to as “Early American” music, colonial tunes varied, including ballads, parodies, drum signals, minuets, sonatas, sea shanties, folk tunes, and many more. But the colonists did not come up with all of this by themselves; most of Early American music came from European countries such as England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Italy, and France.

Early American music was spread both aurally and by written music, leading many colonists to know various songs by heart. Because they were spread aurally, there are many different versions of song due to colonists mixing up the lyrics or creating new ones. Sometimes one song could be used for various different purposes. For example, the song Over the Hills and Far Away was used as a theater song, a recruiting song, a dance tune, and a military march song.

There were four common types of colonial music: theater, dance, church, and military music. Theater music was very popular. Much theater music was ballad opera, which was singing and dialogue mixed together to tell a funny story. The most famous ballad opera was The Beggar’s Opera, which was made in London in 1728, and brought to the colonies in 1750. Dance tunes were basically tunes to dance to. Dance-hungry colonists used whatever instruments they had available to make dance music. Church music was played or sang by colonists during time of worship. This type of music varies as the religions in colonial America vary. For example, in New England, psalms, anthems, and fuging tunes were sang in church because of the immense population of Congregationalists. Military music was played during parades and feast by hired bands of oboes, clarinets, French horns, and bassoons. There were also people who played the drums and fifers when marching into battles. From dance music in clubs to singing in church, common uses for music in modern life can be traced back to the colonial era.

File:Barroom Dancing by John Lewis Krimmel.jpg

Barroom Dancing by John Lewis Krimmel

Certain types of music and instruments reflected the ethnical background, religion, class and gender of a person who practiced them.

Just as the colonists brought European music with them to the New World, slaves brought their music with them from West Africa. When working on plantations, slaves would often sing work songs to help the day go by and to communicate with each other. Spirituals were another form of music practiced by slaves in the colonial era. Spirituals were songs of faith; they were often about religion and the struggles of slavery. Sometimes, the lyrics of spirituals were coded so slaves could vent their feelings though music without receiving punishment from their master. Used primarily in the 18th century, the ring-shout was when a group of slaves moved around in a circle and shouted or sang spirituals. Today, a subtle form of the ring shout can be found accompanying gospels in a church. The culture and music of African slaves also became an important part of this music as they influenced many genres that we listen to today, including Jazz, Blues, and Gospel.

File:SlaveDanceand Music.jpg

The Old Plantation, ca. 1790-1800. Watercolor by unidentified artist

What did colonists use to make their music? They used their beautiful voices and various instruments such as the piano, drums, trumpets, cellos, clarinets, glass harmonicas, organs, various types of flutes, and several more instruments were used in the colonies, primarily by men. The most popular of the instruments played were violins. A violin ranged from cheap to very expensive in price and was used by men of all classes, being played by both Thomas Jefferson and many slaves. Women, however, usually did not play the same types of instruments as men in order to have a good reputation. If she was wealthy, a woman would play a harpsichord and perform pieces for friends and family. Most women in the colonies, if playing any instrument at all, would play a harp or an English guitar, which was a 10-string version of the modern-day guitar. I think it is pretty cool that women played the first version of the modern guitar.

Sea shanties were usually sung by sailors who to pass the time. These songs were about the sea or a sailor’s life and experiences while sailing. Here is an excerpt from the sea shanty Boston Harbour:

From Boston Harbour we set sail,
When it was blowing a devil of a gale,
With our ringtail set abaft the mizzen peak
And our Rule Britannia ploughing up the deep.

Overall, music was a big part of everyday life in the colonies and has influenced our lives today.


One thought on “American Colonists: Music to Their Ears

  1. Cyan- this is such a good post. Truth be told, colonial history isn’t my favorite period- but I do love thinking about the entertainment and artistic expression from all eras, and this was so interesting to read!

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