Essay Series Essays

The Search for the American Sound, 1

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series The Search for the American Sound


download Search for the American Sound – 1

When did American music become American? There are several answers, some absolutely assured, some a bit more tentative. In this miniseries, we will consider music in America even before composers began the search for the American sound.

In the beginning, the music of America was the music of those parts of Europe from which came all sorts of people to these shores. What is now Massachusetts rang out with the fervent sounds of “The Whole Booke of Psalms Faithfully Translated into English Meter” (1640). Since musical instruments were not allowed in church, the leaders were often hard pressed to keep the pitch and even the tunes as they should be.

After 1700, organs began to be shipped over the Atlantic. At first they were little used, not because the congregations did not want them but because the leaders were reluctant to introduce anything that was new. The idea that the vocal lines should be printed along with the psalms met even more opposition, mainly because some of the Italian annotations were considered blasphemous. By 1720, this ban was relaxed a bit.

As more and more instruments were imported, singing and then dancing became acceptable to a degree. In fact, concerts began to be given, the earliest on record being played in the late 1720s. Five shillings would purchase a ticket for a Boston concert in 1731. By 1754, Boston had its own concert hall and by 1762 South Carolina had its first music society. What was played there was, of course, what was being played in similar venues in Europe, allowing for the time it took for the latest compositions to arrive and find their ways down the colonies.

downloadAmong the Dutch, Swedish and other non-English enclaves, music was played to please more eclectic tastes, but the influence was almost non-existent. For example, the music of the Moravians in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania sounded very much in the tradition of Bach—hauntingly lovely melodies in a powerful religious context. However, the Moravian influence on outside composers was nil.

In 1730, Benjamin Franklin published a collection of hymns, some of which are the earliest examples of music composed in America. However, they could not be distinguished from the European entries in any way.

Although some attempts at American opera had taken place, by far the most popular work was the ballad opera “The Beggar’s Opera” by John Gay. This set the style for early American “musicals”: plays in which new lyrics were grafted onto familiar tunes, such as Handel’s “Hail, the conquering hero comes.” Part of the fun was letting the audience identify the original titles and composers, not too unlike a performance today by PDQ Bach!

download (5)
William Billings

Homegrown composers included Francis Hopkinson (1737-1791), James Lyon (1734-1794), and William Billings (1746-1800). The new nation desperately needed heroes when the old English ones would not serve. Since King Arthur defended his country from the invaders of the north, we would glorify George Washington. Indeed, Washington’s early portraits show him realistically if a bit romanticized in military dress. After the Revolution, he was shown in full Roman style with garlands around his head and a consort of heavenly figures in the Baroque style.

Such visuals need music to match and men like Hopkinson were quick to respond with paeans in the Handelian style. American subjects; European music. How could it be otherwise?

With perfect Orwellian doublethink, as we moved into what is known as the Federalist period and continued to take over the land from the “savages,” we would still praise their nobility in songs like “The Death Song of the Cherokee Indians” (1787) with elevated lyrics that would not be out of place in a Dryden heroic play, which was then all the rage in England.

220px-Hail,_Columbia_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_21566A German immigrant named Philip Phile composed “The President’s March” around 1793; and it stands as a rare example of music still played today, but with the added lyrics that begin “Hail, Columbia, happy land.” It is, of course, in the good old Prussian military style.

So while American composers were conscious of the need for an American sound, they had no idea of how to find one. Writing about American subjects helped a little. However, it would take more intellectual intercourse with the other groups who did not live in Boston or South Carolina and whose songs were not those of the English theater or churches. It would take another 100 years, but the experiments along the way are fascinating to behold.

download (6)Recommended recordings: From New World records, “The Birth of Liberty: Music of the American Revolution” (80276-2), “Music of the Federal Era” (80299-2), “The Flowering of Vocal Music in America” (80467-2). From Telarc, “Lost Music of Early America: Music of the Moravians” (CD80482). On an independent label, “The Music Master’s Companion” and “The Second Companion,” R.P. Hale ( From WEM (WEMCD503), “Colonial & Revolution Songs with historical narration.”

Essay Series Essays

The Search for the American Sound, 2

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series The Search for the American Sound
Stephen Foster

The Search for the American Sound – 2

It was 1849. Rome was declared a republic under Mazzini, Bernard College for Women was founded in London, the speed of light was measured with the greatest accuracy yet, and David Livingston was exploring Africa. “David Copperfield” was the book to read, “The Merry Wives of Windsor” scored as a hit opera in Vienna, and “Who’s Who” appeared for the first time.

Zachary Taylor become our 12th president after a campaign in which bands played “General Taylor’s Gallop” and sang lyrics like

We’ll sing a song to suit the times

                        With voices bold and steady,

                        And cheerily we’ll tell in rhymes

                        Of good old Rough and Ready

to the music of “Yankee Doodle.”

In towns like Keene, NH, music festivals such as the 1854 Cheshire County Musical Institution were founded and hundreds would flock to them to sing. Lack of funding, alas, finally brought most of them to an end.

Around the same time, many people decided that this country had a Manifest Destiny (manifest to those who made the decision, one would assume) to expand to the Pacific coast. This concept of the territories to the west of the Mississippi sounded a lot like the concept of the Promised Land, and so a good deal of vocal music took on a very non-Bachian sound of the type collected in “The Sacred Harp” and “Southern Harmony.”

Of course, 1849 is better known for the Gold Rush, an even stronger incentive to move west. It has been said that men never worked so hard to become wealthy enough to never work again. Many of Stephen Foster’s songs such as “Camptown Races” were chanted as they optimistically followed the sun.

Louis Moreau Gottschalk

At the same time, the Creole population in the New Orleans area was giving birth to a new kind of music. Many such songs were of a very sad nature, such as the lament for a dead child, “Salangadou.” Louis Moreau Gottschalk was taking the complex rhythms of songs like “Bamboula” and composing even more complex variations for piano virtuosi.

In what is now called the Sentimental Age, composers like Foster were spinning out “name songs” like “Jeannie with the light brown hair,” Aura Lee,” and other woman-as-goddess works that helped delay female suffrage for many decades more. The fact that many of these women were dead was squarely in the tradition of Wordsworth’s Lucy poems and Burns’ “Flow gently, sweet Afton.”

Sweetly she sleeps, my Alice Fair,

                        Her cheek on the pillow pressed

                        Sweetly she sleeps, while her Saxon hair,

                        Like sunlight streams over her breast.

White dancers imitating black dancers imitating and making fun of white dancers!

And all the while, songs like “Old black Joe” with its “gentle voices” assured us that all was happy in the land of cotton. Actually, the Minstrel Show craze began with the black slaves dressing up one day in the year and mimicking  the high and mighty airs of their white masters. They would strut up towards the judge’s table and the winners would be awarded a cake. Hence the strutting became known as the Cakewalk and “That takes the cake” became a common expression in American English!

When done on a stage, the black performers were able to earn money but at the price of perpetuating the stereotype of the stupid but happy African. One composer-lyricist decided to compliment his fellow blacks by likening them to the raccoon, a very smart animal who knew how to survive. Unhappily, he used the abbreviation “coon” and the results were quite the opposite of what was intended.

So by now, the music heard outside of concert halls was not quite American, but it was definitely getting away from its European roots. But a lot was going to happen at the end of the 19th century when American music did find its voice.

71q9HByrqbL._SX450_Recommended recordings. From Vox, “The Great Sentimental Age: Songs by Foster, Ives, Hawthorne, Hanby & Others” (CDX 5016) and “Homespun America: Music for Brass Band, Social Orchestra, Choral Groups From the Mid-19th Century” (CDX5088). From New World Records, “Where Home Is: Life in Nineteenth-Century Cincinnati” (80251-2).

Essay Series Essays

The Search for the American Sound, 3

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series The Search for the American Sound
Scott Joplin, 1907

The Search for the American Sound – 3

About a century and a quarter ago in my now hometown of Keene, NH, an announcement appeared to one and all concerning “The 18th Annual Festival of The Cheshire County Musical Convention” that was to start on August 22, 1870 and last for five days. Among the participants were two conductors, five soloists, a pianist, and the Mendelssohn Quintette Club. The music was by     American and British composers, all of it classical or “light” classical and all of it quite respectable.

download (4)Around 1904, the popular Arthur Pryor Band gave concerts at Asbury Park’s Arcade Pier and at the Casino. These two events have been reconstructed on Archeophone CDs, “Echoes of Asbury Park”   by using old Pryor recordings. Among the selections are works by Berlioz, Balfe, Verdi, Pryor himself, and a few others known only to historians of the time.

None of this was quite what one would hear at the same times on the streets of New Orleans. But those antipodal musical worlds were soon to meet in the concert hall as they had done in the minstrel shows.

With the coming of the 20th century, the Philippines were demanding freedom from the United States’ military presence, Admiral Dewey was given an ovation in New York City, Carry Nation began to take her hatchet to Kansas saloons, and the newfangled automobile was banned from Central Park.

The book that held our attention included the first of the Rover Boys series. A team called The Four Cohans was getting good notices on the vaudeville stage, while Victor Herbert was still the king of operetta and William Gillette was portraying Sherlock Holmes on the “legitimate” stage.

In 1909, “I wonder who’s kissing her now” was heard in the musical show above

After the Civil War, there were a good many songs about angels and death, almost as if we were trying to atone for the useless slaughter that ended in 1866—at least on paper. But lyrics were lightening up after 1885, while some were taking a more cynical turn. “I wonder who’s kissing her now” (1909) talks about an affair that is now over, not a love that has lasted since they were sweet sixteen. When a Follies singer was slightly shocking when she declared “I just can’t make my eyes behave” (1906), Eva Tanguay stunned audiences by confessing “I don’t care” (1905).

In 1892, Edison built the first movie studio in America in West Orange, NJ, and pianists had a bonanza playing familiar (mostly classical) tunes to fit the action on the screen. What was to be called Tin Pan Alley was paying great attention to the “huddled masses” arriving at these shores with lyrics such as those of an 1894 song:

That’s where Johnny Casey and Little Jenny Crowe

                With Jaikey Krause the baker who always had the dough,

                Pretty Nellie Shannon with her fellow fresh from Cork,

                First picked up the waltz step on the sidewalks of New York.

            Indeed, the once venerable waltz (which had been condemned when it first appeared as too immoral for decent folk) had evolved into a lower class masterpiece like “Waltz me around again, Willy” (1906). And big church weddings, beyond the means of most people, yielded to such compromises as

It won’t be a stylish marriage,

               I can’t afford a carriage.

               But you’ll look sweet upon the seat

              Of a bicycle built for two

that was sung in 1891.

Now, such new sentiments demanded new music. It was just fine to parody respectable European works, but an American sound was needed to do the job completely. The chemistry of the Black and French cultures in New Orleans had given rise to something called “ragging it up” or somewhat later “ragtime.” Inventing elaborate systems of syncopation (the strong beats of the melody NOT coinciding all the time with the strong beats of the accompaniment), black composers like Scott Joplin were forced to play in brothels and other sites of low entertainment where they would give a vitality to the music they played on out-of-tune pianos with missing keys.

This style of composition was quickly picked up by white composers like Irving Berlin and was heard on vaudeville stages all over America. It seems that an American sound had finally arrived from Africa and Creole New Orleans. What was done with it is quite another story.

Sometime in the future, we will pick up that story in an exploration on the music of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, and other composers. But for now we can see how the American Sound was found in the unlikeliest of places.


21YC5JP3HRL._AA160_Recommended recordings. From New World Records: “Don’t Give the Name a Bad Place: Types and Stereotypes in American Musical Theater 1870-1900”; “I Wants to Be a Actor Lady and Other Hits from Early Musical Comedies.” Note: The Archeophone catalogue provides original recordings from as early as 1890 up to the middle 1920s. See their website. From Elektra: “After the Ball” with Joan Morris, mezzo.