Portuguese fado musicians Duarte Tavares and Olivete Maria Poulart perform at the IV Seasons Restaurant, Lowell, Massachusetts, November 14, 1987. Lowell Folklife Project Collection. Photo by John Lueders-Booth.
The first Portuguese immigrants arrived in the United States around the middle of the seventeenth century. Many of the early settlers were Portuguese Jews who emigrated to Rhode Island, Maryland and New Amsterdam (now New York) to escape persecution in their native land. 
Large waves of Portuguese immigrants, mostly from the Portuguese territories of the Azores, the Cape Verde Islands and Madeira, began settling in the United States in the mid nineteenth century to avoid poverty and compulsory military service back home. Many of these immigrants worked on American whaling ships and textile mills in New England while others went to Hawaii to labor on sugar plantations.
Portugal's Revolution of 1910 and subsequent entry into World War I caused significant numbers of Portuguese people to flee to the United States. These immigrants tended to gravitate towards established Portuguese American communities in Massachusetts, California, Hawaii, Rhode Island, New Jersey and Florida. Another great surge of hundreds of thousands emigrated from mainland Portugal in the 1960s and 1970s.
In the late 1800s, Portuguese immigrants in Hawaii introduced the cavaquinho, a small stringed instrument. The Hawaiians adapted this instrument into the ukulele, which has since become a staple of Hawaiian song culture.
Portuguese American vocal music culture is both rich and complex. Two vocal music traditions from Portugal have become staples of Portuguese American life in particular: the rural ranchos folclóricos and the urban fado.
Ranchos folclóricos, an elaborate type of costumed staged pageant-like performance involving rural songs accompanied by such instruments as the guitar, violin, and bombo (double-sided lambskin drum), and dances, originated in Portugal in the 1920s as a way of preserving the national identity and customs. Many such groups exist in the United States with large numbers of Portuguese Americans who form amateur troupes typically involve thirty to forty costumed performers dancing and singing traditional songs.
The Library of Congress's American Folklife Center has numerous ranchos folclóricos in its holdings, collected from Portuguese immigrants living in California in the 1930s. One fine example is "Mariana Costureira" (Seamstress Mariana), a song about a mysterious young woman sung by Alice Lemos Avila on February 6, 1939. The collector Sidney Robertson Cowell, who recorded the song, noted that it "was well known to all Portuguese in California."
Fado is the most popular form of Portuguese American song and it is sung in both folk and popular musical traditions. It is a melodramatic, text-oriented song form, which is sometimes likened to the American blues. The texts are usually full of melancholy longing (saudade). Popular topics include the yearnings of sailors for their faraway homeland and unrequited love.
Fado emerged in the urban centers of Lisbon and Coimbra in the nineteenth century and received international attention starting in the 1950s when the form was popularized by the great Portuguese vocalist Amália Rodrigues. It traveled with immigrants from Portugal to Brazil and from Brazil to North America. Fados are performed by a solo singer or fadista, who is typically accompanied by the viola (guitar) and guitarra (Portuguese guitar). The guitarra plays the melody and supplies ornamentation, while the viola supplies the chords.
An example of a fado is "Minha Mai e Pobresinha" (My mother is very poor) sung by Alberto Mendes, accompanying himself on a Portuguese viola. It was recorded on February 11, 1939 by collector Sidney Robertson Cowell in Richmond, California. Sidney Robertson Cowell's transcription and translation of the text are available online. A more recent example was documented in Lowell, Massachusetts by researchers from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress on November 14, 1987. Titled "Já Estas Com os Copos" ("You're Already Drunk, Don't Drink Any More"), it was performed by Olivete Maria Poulart (singer), Mário Bulhões (acoustic guitar), and Duarte Tavares (Portuguese guitar). Fado performers can be widely heard within Portuguese American communities across the country. But the form is also wildly popular among non-Portuguese American audiences. Famous touring fadistas from Portugal, such as Mariza, Ana Moura and Cristina Branco attract thousands of audience members to concerts. There is also a growing number of United States-born fadistas. One notable example is Ramana Vieira, who was born in the San Francisco Bay Area to Portuguese parents.
Traditional Portuguese vocal music forms find a contemporary expression in the music of Portuguese American rock bands. The ensembles play standard rock instruments like electric guitar, drums and electric bass, and perform at parties, showers, weddings and other social events. Their repertoire ranges from traditional Portuguese songs to rock and disco music. Acclaimed Portuguese American vocal artists include Anthony Joseph "Joe Perry" Pereira, a singer, songwriter and guitarist with the hard rock band Aerosmith; Steve Perry, the former longtime vocalist of the rock band Journey, Joseph Guilherme Raposo, a songwriter best known for his work on the children's television series Sesame Street, for which he wrote the theme song, and John Philip Sousa, a late nineteenth/early twentieth century composer best known for his military marches, but whose work also included a number of notable operettas.
- Examples of songs in Ladino, the dialect spoken by Jews from Spain and Portugal were presented at a concert sponsored by the African and Middle Eastern Division of the Library of Congress on March 27, 2012: A Concert of Ladino Music: Flory Jagoda [back to article]
- Select this link for a list of examples of Fado songs from Library of Congress Collections available online. [back to article]
- California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties presents the WPA California Folk Music Project collection, which includes recordings of Portuguese immigrants in Oakland and Richmond, California, performing dance music and singing fados, Christmas carols, and songs in Portuguese on the guitar, guitarra, mandolin, piano, triangle and viola. Select the link for ethnic groups from the home page to learn about Portuguese selections in the online collection.
- "Iberian Music" by Janet L. Sturman in The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 3: The United States and Canada (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 2001) pp 847-853.
- Thernstrom, Stephan, ed. The Harvard Encylopedia of American Ethnic Groups pp813-820. (Harvard, 1980; Second printing, 1981)
- For more information on Portuguese American collections in the archive of the American Folklife Center, see the finding aid: Portugal Collections in the Archive of Folk Culture.
- See more articles about Ethnic Song in America.