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The Music That Shaped Colonial America

Yankee Doodle

A well-known revolutionary folk song associated with American Independence movement; it significantly predates the American Revolution. The song was originally written as an English battle song during the French and Indian War. After this war, fought in the North American colonies, Yankee Doodle retained its popularity in the “New World.” The song’s lyrics have been changed over time. Leading up to the Revolution and even today, it has been turned into a patriotic anthem by Americans.


Moccasin Game Songs

Some Amerindian musical songs served ceremonial or social purposes, and were played or sung at particular time to help connect the natural and supernatural world to a certain positive end. Some songs served as “game songs,” and mixed drums and chants to help bring luck to players.


Springfield Mountain

Outside of Amerindian musical culture, most songs were imported from the British Isles and Africa. This is a rare folk song written and developed in the United States. Its roots are difficult to trace, but evidence points to its being written around 1761.This makes it one of the only pre-Revolutionary folk songs written for and by American colonists present today.


Barbara Allen

Settlers to the “New World” would bring popular folk songs, like the ballads “Barbara Allen,” across the sea with them. The song was popular in Scotland and England as early as 1666. Its popularity in America today suggests that it was well received in the early colonial days. Ballads were rarely written down, but were instead meant to be sung by memory. This makes “Barbara Allen” and other early ballads a significant part of the oral tradition amongst American colonists.


Psalm 23 and the Bay Psalm book

The Bay Psalm Book is a key artifact in understanding the beliefs and practices of Pilgrims and the importance of music therein. This collection of psalm texts, rather than the Bible itself, was the first volume produced in the New World. The book is considered to have been the work of Christian reformers seeking a collection of worship materials that strictly supported Puritan values. The Psalms served that purpose.

Puritans often did not allow for instrumental accompaniment with their early Psalm singing. The Bay Psalm Book’s publication in 1640 came at a time when few could read and write words, never mind musical notation. Puritans developed the practice of “lining out” the Psalm–having a deacon or clerk read each line of text before it was sung.


How long, Dear SAVIOUR, O how long

This is a contemporary example of a “fuguing tune,” a Scottish-American psalm tradition from New England. This choral musical style features four singers “imitating” one another a cappella style. The emotionally charged fugue tunes, like many kinds of Christian music, were not universally approved as proper church music. The style reached fruition by the late 18th century, and had gained in both popularity and criticism by the 19th century.


Boston Harbour

Smithsonian Folkways dates this sea shanty to the period of 1765-1775. Written by a common seaman, this song is one of the only shanties that can be conclusively dated to colonial times. Despite the rarity of this song’s survival, it is part of what was likely a very strong maritime musical subculture.


Source: The Music That Shaped Colonial America
© Shauna Vert

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