Colonial Period


In the early days of America, the inspirations for song depended heavily on English, Irish and Scottish ballads as well as the hymnals of the religious society.

Puritans sang psalms and hymns, mostly from the little book of psalms brought from England by the first settlers--"Englished Both In Prose and Metre" by Henry Ainsworth, which was published in 1612. Other notable collections followed, including "The Whole Book of Psalmes" or "Bay Psalm Book" (1640), "Introduction to the Singing of Psalm Tunes" by Reverend John Tufts (1715) and "Urania, A Choice Collection of Psalm-Tunes, Anthems and Hymns" by Reverend James Lyons (1761).

While colonial Puritans were singing psalms and hymnals, the Cavaliers in Virginia kept alive the English ballad that had crossed the sea with them. These tunes, passed by word of mouth, were the predecessors to traditional folk music. They became the basis of the entire "hillbilly" literature of the Southern mountains, retaining Elizabethan language while adapting the words to American conditions and lifestyles.

The greatest influence during the Colonial times, however, were the melodies generated from Europe, including "Yankee Doodle," "The Star Spangled Banner," and "America," all of which featured a march-like 4/4 rhythm. Also, English country dances such as "Green Sleeves," "The Fair Emigrant," "Within A Mule of Edinburgh Town, "Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes" and Irish folk songs such as "The Girl I Left Behind Me" largely influenced modern Colonial music. "For He's A Jolly Good Fellow" was also written during this time.

In 1770, William Billings compiled "New-England Psalm-Singer" (also known as "A Collection of the Best Psalm Tunes"), which was published by Josiah Flagg. One component of this collection, Billings' song "Chester," marked the beginning of a new musical movement toward the military song. Essentially a hymn-tune, it had a martial rhythm and patriotic words that made it a favorite with the marching soldiers during the Revolutionary War. Billings' music, like that of later Colonial period songwriters, was based on the religious foundation characteristic of the times; however, with "Chester," Billings introduced American music to the progressive tonal chords of military marches.

The Americans of the Colonial period sang of events and people of current interest. They introduced the musical style that would later adapt itself to documenting patriotism, politics and heroism. The beauty of the melody is in its consistent pattern, which makes it easy to learn and repeat. Only a few Popular songs from the early colonial times retained popular significance, but all possessed aesthetic and historical importance.