October Music



John Smith and Jamestown

Music played an important part in the life of Jamestown. The Jamestown colonists celebrated the holidays of the year as they had been celebrated in England. One of their favorite celebrations was dancing around the May Pole. In and out, and round about they went, weaving and unweaving the bright colors to the accompaniment of sprightly music played by the four fiddlers.



Although dancing was forbidden by the stern Pilgrim Fathers, the young people of Plymouth were not without their entertainment. Quilting parties, corn-huskings, apple-paring bees, barn-raisings, and the play-parties, all made use of old songs and old games known and enjoyed in earlier days in England. Among these, a favorite was "King William was King George's Son."

In this game, it was custom for each young man to carry a hat, and, at the singing of certain words of the song, he would "crown" his partner by placing the hat upon her head. After this, the two would march arm-in-arm in a circle, she in turn crowning "the king" by placing the hat upon his head. So the play continued until all had been "crowned," all marching in couples and singing the words over and over.

(From America Sings by Hazel Kinscella)



Edward Winslow, one of the passengers of the Mayflower, wrote in his diary: "They that stayed at Leyden feasted us that were to go, at our pastor's  house, being large; where we refreshed ourselves, after tears, with singing of Psalms, making joyful melody in our hearts, as well as with the voice, there being many of our congregation being expert in music. After this they accompanied us to Delph's Haven, where we were to embark..."

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, congregational singing in England meant the singing of the Psalms, and all books made to be used in worship were known as Psalter, or Psalm-books. There were no Hymn-books, until well into the next century. It was the custom to sing the Psalms in rotation, one after the other in the order in which they appear in the Bible, two each week-day and eight on Sunday, and thus sing the entire 150 Psalms through several times each year. (From America Sings by Hazel Kinscella).

Longfellow, in his poem about Miles Standish and Priscilla Alden, which was written from oral family stories (he was a descendant), mentions the singing of 'the hundredth Psalm,' better known as the Doxology. 

"Heard, as he drew near the door, the musical voice of Priscilla

Singing the hundredth Psalm, the grand old Puritan anthem, 

Music that Luther sang to the sacred words of the Psalmist,

Full of the breath of the Lord, consoling and comforting many."



In 1630, Governor Winthrop and a party of fifteen hundred women and children landed at a spot which they called Charlestown in honor of their king. These Puritans, too, brought songs to the strange land. As with the Pilgrims, their only religious songs were the Psalms. Many of the Psalms in their book, The Whole Book of Psalmes, had no tunes at all, but only a direction as to which tune should be used. Usually the minister sang a line and the congregation tried to repeat it, as shown in this first video from a movie about the Mayflower pilgrims.

The second video is an example of a hymn that came from Psalms.



It is a proud record in the history of printing in America that the first book set in type in the United States was a hymnal. This was the Bay Psalm Book, so called because it was published by members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This was in 1640. The editors were Preachers Weld and John Eliot of Roxbury.

On the title page, the "saints are exhorted to make use of 'Psalmes, Himnes, and Spirituall Songs.'" Also, "if any be afflicted, let him pray, and if any be merry, let him sing psalms."

As there was no music in these first copies of the book, worshipers sang from memory. Some of the longer Psalms required a half hour to sing. Even so, the resulting music was far from pleasant. A noted minister once said of it: "Almost everyone has a tune by himself. One will sing upon a high, another upon a low pitch. Some will be too fast, others to slow, so that jars and confusions pervade the whole assembly. No one should sing audibly, unless he can sing in unison with the clerk."

The first singing schools grew out of a desire to be able to sing the Psalms properly. Though the need was apparent, the controversy for and against singing schools waged for a decade. Some ministers pleaded for them. Other ministers opposed the new teaching vigorously, saying that to "make lessons" of the Divine Word was to treat it lightly. They argued that "if we learn to sing by rule, we will soon be obliged to pray by rule."

As the singing-school brought together the young people of an entire town, it was a real social event. Some came in sleighs, some on horseback, on snowshoes, or afoot. About 1725 the better singers began to sit together in a group in the meeting house on Sunday. Out of this grew the choir...and the "agreeable new mode of singing" became generally popular. (From America Sings by Hazel Kinscella)

Here is a hymn from the Bay Psalm Book



The Dutch who came to live in New Amsterdam, later called New York when the British took over, were a fun-loving people, as reflected in this song they brought over from the Netherlands: Sarasponda.



A ballad is a story told in song. Ballads in the Old World were often sung by wandering minstrels who sang them, often accompanying themselves with a harp. It was in this way that important events were remembered and told from one end of the land to another. Some ballads, on the other hand, were meant to entertain. Ballads, like Paper of Pins, were passed down from generation to generation and carried to the New World.



William Penn was a Quaker. Many years after Penn died, another Quaker, Anne Lee, broke away and formed what became known as the Shakers. She incorporated many of the practices from her Quaker background such as simplicity, frugality and a strong work ethic. Simple Gifts was a Shaker song that reflected these values. It was largely unknown outside Shaker communities until Aaron Copeland used the melody in Appalachian Spring.



When the English drove the Acadians out of their homes, many settled in Louisiana. Here is a sample of 'Cajun' folk music. This is a nonsense song that has been sung in the bayous for generations.


Slave Trade

One of the most famous hymns ever written is Amazing Grace, written by a former slave ship captain. The melody may have been inspired by the songs he heard coming from below deck. 



When the Africans were kidnapped and brought to America against their wills, they carried with them their songs, rhythms and chants. Many of them have survived to this day. One of the best known is "Juba This and Juba That."



A little more Juba!