Music of the American Revolution
The American Revolution has been one of the most studied events in world history. It is, after all, an inspiring story of the fight for liberty, freedom from tyranny, and the somewhat radical (at the time) notion that “All men are created equal.”
That said, one of the most complete examinations of Revolutionary War music was done by Richard Crawford in the form of liner notes in a set of collected recordings entitled Music of the American Revolution: The Birth of Liberty.
The CD is available from Amazon.com and for fans of early American music, is a real treasure trove. Knowing the truth behind music of that time in the colonies makes listening to the recordings even more compelling.
Not Much to Brag About
Crawford notes that the American Revolution inspired only a small number of new musical compositions. Colonists, including those who were musicians, it can probably be assumed, were too busy fighting the British to sit down at the harpsichord and write songs about their struggles.
Crawford points out that James Fuld’s Book of World Famous Music lists only three tunes associated with the American war for independence: British Grenadiers, God Save the King, and Yankee Doodle. As Crawford notes, the first two are British in origin and the third is unknown.
Perhaps, more importantly, Yankee Doodle wasn’t exactly flattering to the American side since it was used by the British to poke fun of American soldiers.
As ThinkQuest points out, “He stuck a feather in his hat and called it Macaroni” meant that Americans were stupid and thought that a feather was macaroni, which was actually a hairstyle in England.
Professionals Need Not Apply
The vast majority of music played and sung in colonial America consisted of tunes imported from England including church music, mostly psalms which were sung without accompaniment as a way of praising the Lord.
Most of the music performed in early America was performed by amateurs in everyday settings, not by professional musicians. In Europe, music of the classical composers was being performed in churches and in concert halls by paid musicians for paying customers. In America, music was less performance based than event based – showing up at community gatherings, pubs, and of course, churches.
Music of the American Revolution was more functional than artistic. Instrumental music was mostly played for dancing and for marching. Solo songs were most often parodies of British songs with new lyrics aimed at protesting the King or members of Parliament.
Music performed in church was the most functional of all, typically performed by members of the congregation and designed to move the worship service forward.
An Oral Tradition
In addition, much of the music performed in Colonial America was not written down. It was passed on from one person to another in oral tradition or with the lyrics only printed in the newspaper. For that reason, harmonies were simple – or non-existent – and the melodies were accessible to almost anyone who could carry a tune.
When music was written, it often appeared in the form of publications like the Bay Psalm Book, in which the lyrics (text) appeared in the front of the book and the 13 included tunes appeared notated in the back. Parishioners were instructed to fit the words to whichever tune they chose to sing.
Original Published American Music
The first real publication of original music in America happened in 1759 when Francis Hopkinson set the poem, My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free, to music. At the same time, James Lyon composed a song to be sung at his graduation from Princeton.
Later, in the early 1760s, Lyon compiled Urania, a collection of sacred music with a full 198 pages containing 98 separate compositions. Urania represents the earliest American printing of anthems. Most importantly, 28 of the anthems that appeared in Urania contained music and text together, the first time this had ever happened in American music.
Then, in 1770, William Billings, an American leather tanner from Boston, published the New-England Psalm-Singer, the very first collection of entirely American music containing 126 pieces in all.
Billings, who is best known for the hymn Chester, is important because he composed music celebrating events of the American Revolution. Almost no other composer did that.
Billings, like many of his contemporaries created music – especially music for the church – designed to be sung without accompaniment. This was not just due to a lack of instruments. It was also because Calvinists opposed instruments in church in the first place – dating back to the Protestant Reformation.
Martial Music of the Revolution
Bands or ensembles made up of fifes and drums provided music for military occasions. The music fifes and drums played was published in books called tutors or tune books written by the musicians themselves.
A good example of a tune book is one written out by Giles Gibbs, Jr. in 1777 called, His Book for the Fife. Both the fife and the drum came to America from Europe and were used in much the same way they were used there.
In a town drummers played to summon men to take up arms. The combination of fifes and drums signaled the start of a battle and as the fighting continued provided sound clues for soldiers so they would know what their commanders wanted them to do.
Over time, additional instruments were added until the military bands we know today were created.
Songs of Freedom
Although much of the music played and sung during the American Revolution was not original, songs were used in original ways. ThinkQuest lists a number of those popular songs of the day, along with the stories behind them.
Perhaps the best way to think about how the colonists viewed music is to remember the words of early American poet and diplomat, Joe Barlow, who said, at the beginning of the War for Independence, “One good song is worth a dozen addresses and proclamations.”
Here is the video on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BMmouP3TM9g