The History of American music, meaning the music of what is now the United States, should logically start with the psalm singing of the New England colonists, not because it was the first music known on the North American Continent, but rather because it was the earliest music of which we have any satisfactory record, and of which any extended account can be written.
The folk music of the American Indians was probably in existence long before the coming of the colonists, and no doubt the Negroes who were brought from Africa in the first slave ship in 1619 used song as an outlet for their emotions; but recognition of folk music has been a comparatively modern fashion, and it seems more appropriate to discuss it in other than a chronological place which is wholly problematical. The earliest European music to be heard upon either coast of North America north of the Spanish settlements was the French psalmody sung by Drake's seamen during their stay of several weeks in June, 1579, at what is now known as Drake's Bay on the California coast, as described in Francis Fletchers "The World encompassed by Sir Francis Drake".
Aside from these brief episodes the first recorded use of music on this continent, north of the Spanish domain, was that of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. The settlement at Jamestown preceded that at Plymouth by eleven years, it is true, but the Virginia planter have left no record of singing, though it not unreasonable to assume that in spite of the miseries they endured they may at times have plucked up courage to sing popular “catches” round their campfires, and psalms in their houses of worship.
In contrast to our lack of information about the Jamestown settlement, we do have definite knowledge of the music to New England settlers brought with them from England, and contemporary documents tell of their methods of singing. We are, therefore, able to follow the course of musical development in the Northern colonies from the earliest days.
History of American music in :-
The 1st century of New England’s history was in many respects a musical wilderness, but probably a little if any more so than in the other colonies. The England from which the first settlers emigrated was a land noted for its singing, and there is no reason to suppose that only those persons emigrated who were unmusical. The Puritans, of course, held strictly to psalmody as the only music suitable for use in worship, and discountenanced lewd and indecent songs, of which there were plenty in the 17th Century, as tending to “the nourishment of vice and the corruption of faith,” but there is adequate evidence that many of them appreciated good music and that some brought musical instruments with them to this country.
But the hard conditions of pioneer life, with its heavy labor, left no leisure for the fine arts, and in all the colonies the second and third generations grew up without the cultural background their English fathers had enjoyed. This was undoubtedly the principal cause of the musical impoverishment that existed until more stable conditions made possible the revival of interest in music early in the 18th Century in the history of American Music.
When the Pilgrims crossed from Holland in the mayflower in 1620 they brought with them Henry Ainsworth’s book of Psalms, prepared by him in 1612 for the congregations of Separatists who fled from England to Holland. His book included thirty-nine psalm-tunes, about half being taken from English psalm books, the rest being the longer and finer French and Dutch tunes in a considerable variety of matters. Ainsworth’s psalter was superior, musically, to any English psalm book then available.
The Plymouth Pilgrims undoubtedly had a love for music, for a contemporary account for sailing from Leyden tells of the ceremony that attended their departure. In Hypocrisies’ unmasked Edward Winslow wrote:
“They that stayed at Leyden feasted us that were to go at our pastor’s house…: where we refreshed ourselves, after tears, with singing of Psalms, making joyful melodies in our hearts as well as with voice, there being many of our congregation very expert in music; and indeed it was the sweetest melody that ever mine ears heard.”
Ainsworth’s book of Psalms remained in use at Plymouth until 1692, when it was abandoned in favor of the Bay Psalm book, because the children of the emigrant generation were no longer able to sing the longer and more involved tunes their fathers had loved.
The puritan of Massachusetts Bay Colony brought with them the psalm book that had been produced by English Protestants exiles in Geneva on the model of the French Geneva Psalter of 1562 in the history of American Music.
Altogether some fifty tunes are referred to in either Ravenscroft’s Psalter or other English psalm books. It is important to remember that although the editors were unable to print music in the Bay Psalm Book, they did recommend to its users the best collections of tunes which the time afforded.
The ninth edition, 1698, inserted thirteen tunes at the back of the book and is the earliest known book with music printed in the English colonies. The tunes were doubtless those in frequent use at the time.
The music was copied inaccurately from some unidentified English source. It was crudely engraved on wood in diamond-shaped notes in two-part harmony, without bars except at the end of each line. In later editions, well-made copper plates were used.
The Bay psalm book soon came into wide use, not only in New England but, in its 1651 form, as far south as Philadelphia. It even had some use in England and Scotland where, according to the historian Thomas Prince, it was well esteemed; Twenty-seven editions were printed in New England, the last in 1762, and some twenty more in Great Britain, the last in 1754. Of the many variations of metrical psalms, only those of Sternhold and Hopkins, of Tate and Brady, the Scottish psalter, and that of Watts were reprinted and used more widely in American Music.
Evidently not all of the early Bostonians favored singing, even of psalms, for in 1647 the Revered John Cotton found it advisable to publish a treatise entitled:
Singing Psalms a Gospel Ordinance: or a Treatise wherein are handled using particulars.