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There is a general stereotyped image of the Colonial and Revolutionary War periods as being staid and restrictive. It is often assumed, though erroneously, that the people of those periods were denied an enjoyment of music by the provincial governments. Music, during the Colonial and Revolutionary War periods, may not have been as varied as it is today; but to think that the enjoyment of it was denied, throughout all the colonies, would be a mistake.
The stereotyped views we have of music-less colonists comes primarily from New England. It is true that the Puritans, who believed that merriment of any sort might lead to a loss of reverence to things godly, did not condone the enjoyment of music - just as they did not condone other forms of 'fun'. But even the Puritans, though denying the use of instruments, did, in fact, allow the singing of Psalms in church. This attitude of prohibition toward the use of instruments began to weaken as the Eighteenth Century dawned. In 1713 Thomas Brattle installed an organ in the King's Chapel of the Anglican Church at Boston.
The Puritan prohibition on secular music very gradually, but eventually, was lowered; by the early 1730s music for its own sake was enjoyed in the city of Boston, which was growing more and more cosmopolitan, leaving its stoic past behind. According to Richard Middleton, in his book, Colonial America, the first formal concert of classical music in the American colonies took place in Boston in the year 1731. The event, billed as "a Concert of Music on sundry Instruments" was held at the home of a Mr. Pelham, an engraver, dancing master and dealer in tobacco, among other things. A couple of years later the Boston Selectmen granted permission for Fanueil Hall to be used for musical concerts. By 1754 a hall where "Vocal and instrumental Musick to consist of Select Pieces by the Masters" could be staged on a regular basis was established at the corner of Hanover and Court Streets.
The Middle Colonies of New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland had been largely settled by Northern Europeans including the Germans, Swedish and Dutch, who relished their ethnic and religious festivities, of which music played a major part. The religious creeds and customs of these Germanic and Scandanavian peoples did not prohibit music. On the contrary, the singing of hymns, accompanied by a solitary organ or small chamber orchestra, was an integral part of the early Protestant church service. The first recorded use of an organ in a church was in 1703 at the Gloria Dei Church in Philadelphia. Any student of classical and baroque music will readily note that it was music composed during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries for use in church services that we cherish today as some of the best ever produced. The people of Northern European descent wholeheartedly embraced it at that time also. Despite the small pocket of resistance toward the enjoyment of music that was found in the Quakers who had settled primarily in the colony of Pennsylvania, the people of the Middle Colonies embraced the merriment that music brought to their, oftentimes, prosaic lives. In New York City, during the 1750s, there were regularly scheduled "subscription" concerts. The first use of an orchestra in an operatic performance occurred in the performance of The Beggar's Opera in 1752 at Marlboro, Maryland.
The Southern Colonies, which included Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia, although heavily settled by British emigrants, were more tolerant of music than their New England Puritan cousins. The Scotch and Irish emigrants who made the southern colonies their new homes brought their predominantly Presbyterian religious views with them; those views allowed greater tolerance to things 'worldly'. Shortly after the news of Boston's 1731 concert was published, a concert was held in Charleston, South Carolina. It should be noted, though, that in 1737 John Wesley was arraigned by a Savannah, Georgia grand jury and charged with, among other counts, introducing unauthorized psalms and hymns into the Anglican church service.
Much of the music that was presented in the concerts of the day was that being produced, as noted above, by European composers of the Classical and Baroque styles. As such, it was geared more toward being listened to, rather than sung to. Listening to music in the refined luxury of a concert hall may have sufficed for some of the colonists, but not for all of them. The common man needed songs which were simple and easy to sing to or play on a single instrument.
The common man's music of the 1700s grew out of two art forms. Legends, folktales, children's nursery rhymes and the like had been around for centuries. They were recited at public gatherings such as quilting bees and house raisings. Instrumental tunes in the form of gigs and reels, and other "country dances", which could be played by a single fiddler or flutist were also popular at such gatherings. It was a simple matter for the two to be combined. The earliest forms of some popular songs are somtimes difficult to ascertain because it was often the case that numerous sets of lyrics would be linked to the same piece of music before any one combination became standard.
An example of the combining of current lyrics to older, well-known tunes is that of the song, Derry Down, which was originally composed as a simple English country tune. Following the Boston Massacre, the tune was given lyrics by an anonymous British sympathizer which stated in part:
You simply Bostonians, I'd have you beware, Of your Liberty Tree, I would have you take care, For if that we chance to return to the town, Your houses and stores will come tumbling down. Derry down, down, hey derry down.
Our fleet and our army, they soon will arrive, Then to a bleak island, you shall not us drive. In every house you shall have three or four, And if that will not please you, you shall have half a scorre. Derry down, down, hey derry down.
When King George III rejected the petitions aimed at averting war from the Colonies in early 1775, the following refrains were sung to the tune of the song, Derry Down:
What a court hath old England, of folly and sin, Spite of Chatham and Camden, Barre, Burke, Wilkes and Glynn! Not content with the game act, they tax fish and sea, And America drench with hot water and tea. Derry down, down, hey derry down.
There's no knowing where this opposition will stop; Some say - there's no cure but a capital chop; And that I believe's each American's wish, Since you've drenched them with tea, and depriv'd 'em of fish. Derry down, down, hey derry down.
Then freedom's the word, both at home and abroad, And ------ every scabbard that hides a good sword! Our forefathers gave us this freedom in hand, And we'll die in defence of the rights of the land. Derry down, down, hey derry down.
Click on this icon to go to a list of some of the songs which were popular prior to and during the American Revolutionary War period.