Music at Home and on the Plantation

Not all early American music was religious in nature. Each cultural group had its own folk music, and these songs, some of which are still around today, accompanied the home and social lives of white colonists.

The British Isles, for instance, had an ancient tradition of ballad singing, which made its way across the Atlantic and was dispersed throughout the backcountry. Sometimes, ballad writers would alter lyrics to ancient tunes to make them more relevant to life in America; The Trappan’d Maid complained about a servant’s lot in Virginia, for instance.

American events also formed the subject matter for songs like The Death of General Wolfe, which celebrated the sacrifice of the hero of the French and Indian War. Fiddle tunes and dancing music, almost entirely imported from Europe, also lightened many of the burdens associated with rugged colonial life.

The peoples who encountered one another in colonial North America all underwent a cultural transformation. Perhaps none was as significant as the transition of various groups of Africans into African Americans over the span of several generations. One of the ways in which diverse African peoples established an identity that allowed them to survive and thrive culturally under the most miserable physical conditions was music. African cultures were not destroyed by the Middle Passage and slavery. Instead, they were broken down, altered, and rebuilt in an effort to form a new African American cultural identity, of which music was a crucial part.

The music made by black Americans varied widely from region to region. Throughout North America, Africans took up European instruments such as the violin and French horn, although they modified the instruments and the way they were played to their own musical ideas. African slaves also made drums, flutes, xylophones, and other instruments, including a predecessor of the modern banjo, much the same way as they had in Africa. A uniquely African American form of fife-and-drum music is still performed today.

Skilled African musicians entertained at social events for their masters, but also for members of their own community. African slaves used music and dance to express their feelings about the institution of slavery, their masters, and a variety of life experiences. Perhaps the most famous African American contributions to early American music are the work song and the spiritual. Some of these satirized the cultures of the colonies’ elite. Many used the calland-response patterns familiar to students of black music throughout the transatlantic world. African Americans farther to the north fell under the influence of Anglo-American musical forms to a greater extent than their Southern cousins.

In the middle of the eighteenth century, elites in colonial America began to undergo a process that some scholars call refinement. In colonial cities on the Eastern seaboard, well-to-do Americans began to emulate European culture, and music was one of the areas they found lacking. Over the course of the eighteenth century, concerts and the places in which they were performed became increasingly elaborate. A class of professional composers and musicians was slow to develop in colonial America. Still, colonial Americans of every race and ethnicity made music and performed it in a variety of secular and religious settings.

Matthew Jennings See also: Arts, Culture, and Intellectual Life (Chronology); Arts, Culture, and Intellectual Life (Essay); Theater. Bibliography Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life: A History. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001. Josephy, Alvin M., Jr., ed. America in 1492: The World of the Indian People Before the Arrival of Columbus. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. Rath, Richard Cullen. “African Music in Seventeenth-Century Jamaica: Cultural Transit and Transition.” In William and Mary Quarterly 50:4 (October 1993): 700 26. Wright, Louis B. The Cultural Life of the American Colonies, 1607 1763. New York: Harper and Row, 1957.


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