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Yankee Doodle

This well-known revolutionary folk song is definitive in American culture, even today. Although this song may be 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.”  As with many folk songs, the lyrics to Yankee Doodle have been changed over time. The original Yankee Doodle song was likely written by the British to mock the unrefined colonists, while leading up to the Revolution and even to this day, it has been turned into a patriotic anthem of sorts by Americans. In this case, the variations tend to match the political climate of the time, making it particularly interesting to folk music historians.


Moccasin Game Songs

One of the things that makes Amerindian musical culture so distinct is the efficacy of its songs. Songs served ceremonial or social purposes, and were played or sung at particular times to help connect the natural and supernatural world to a certain positive end.  Some songs served as “game songs,” such at the one pictured above. This is the Moccassin game, a gambling tradition from Amerindian groups across America (stretching from modern-day Wisconsin to Arizona). Game songs like this mix drums and chants to help bring luck to players.

Navajo Songs via Smithsonian Folkways

Springfield Mountain

Few early “American” folk songs were native to the colonial settlers. Outside of Amerindian musical culture, most songs were imported from the British Isles and Africa.  This is one of the rare folk songs which was written and developed in the United States.  Its roots are difficult to trace, but evidence points to it being written around 1761, when Timothy Myrick of Springfield Mountain, Massachusetts died of a snake bite. This makes it one of the only pre-Revolutionary folk songs written for and by American colonists still present today.

Barbara Allen

Colonial American “folk songs” are most often rooted in the musical traditions of either the British Isles or of Africa. From the British Isles come ballads, a storytelling songwriting tradition based in the Medieval period.  Settlers to the “New World” would bring popular folk songs, like the ballad “Barbara Allen,” across the sea with them. There is evidence (through the study of old journals) that this song was popular in Scotland and England as early as 1666. Its popularity in America to this day suggests that it was well received in the early colonial days. Ballads exploring themes of sexuality and relationships, especially through feminine eyes, were popular in the Colonial era.  Simply, these issues were relevant to colonists. Traditional songs about chivalry or courtly affairs, on the other hand, died out quickly in the New Word.

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.  This tradition has clearly been successful–hundreds of versions of “Barbara Anne” have been recorded over the years, including recordings by such artists as Art Garfunkel, Pete Seeger,  and Dolly Parton. It continues to be a popular and well-known song in both Britain and the United States, exemplifying the unbreakable cultural ties between the two areas.


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 published 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.

While the above video features traditional instruments, research shows that 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, and there were few copies of the book created to share in churches. As such, Puritans developed the practice of “lining out” the Psalm–having a deacon or clerk read each line of text before it was sung. Later versions of the Bay Psalm Book (from 1698 on) also featured a dozen monophonic tunes for church members unable to read music.

Colonial church music (and, indeed, church practices in general) led to a great many debates and controversies. By 1720, records exist of multiple Boston Ministers speaking out against the perceived perversion of traditional Psalm tunes in their churches.  By the 18th century, debates were plentiful: Should every church member, regardless of musical talent and training, be allowed to sing? Should churches stick to only a few key songs, ensuring that these tunes are perfected (thus properly presented before God)?  How do churches maintain the (highly idealized) Congregational values brought by the Puritans? What of instruments, or of self-expression?  These debates resulted in the slow development of church music (for example, fruguing) and the creation of 18th century colonial singing schools.

Related :
How Long, Dear Saviour O How Long via Sounds of the Colonies
Early American Psalmody via Smithsonian Folkways
Bay Psalm Book Sale: Old South Church Considers Selling First Book Published in North America via Huffington Post

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.  This tradition has Scottish roots, but flourished in 18th century America. Fuguing tunes in America can dated by to the Scottish Metrical Psalter in the 1630s.

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. One critic suggested that it had little place in 19th century America, though its unstructured nature had indeed served a strong purpose for the Puritans.

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 chanties 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.


Colonial and Revolutionary Sea Songs and Shanties via Smithsonian Folkways