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Books English American Song

The New England psalmsinger

The NewEngland Psalmsinger, or, American Chorister. William Billings. Boston, New England : Printed by Edes and Gill, and to be sold by them … , by Deacon Elliot … , by Josiah Flagg … , by Gillam Bass … , and by the author, [1770?]

This article discusses the influence of the English settlers and immigrants as an ethic group on American songs, as distinguished from English as a language.

English settlement of and immigration to North America has continued since the first successful settlements on the East coast in the seventeenth century. After the American Revolution and the War of 1812, English immigration steadily increased until the 1870s. Settlers of English ancestry have also come to the United States from other parts of the world, particularly from Canada and the Bahamas. As a result, songs have flowed in all directions from the United States to England and parts of the British Commonwealth. With a common language and the technological means of transmitting music and broadcasts today, it is easy to see how this can happen. But even early in the settlement of North America, the technological advancement of that era, namely inexpensive printing, made it possible for song sheets and hymnals to be shipped to North America from England, and for songs lyrics printed in North America to travel elsewhere.

The first Puritan settlers to Massachusetts brought the Ainsworth Psalter, an English setting of the Psalms of David, written by English Separatist clergyman Henry Ainsworth in 1612, then published an updated version in 1640, The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre (commonly known as the Bay Psalm Book), which was the first book published in what is now the United States.

In the style of congregational singing brought by the Puritan settlers, it was common for a "presenter" to sing the lines and the congregation would reply with the same line. This solved the common problem of illiteracy among some members of the congregation. Hymns and psalms of the colonial period would have been sung in harmony and might have been sung with an organ, if the congregation approved of such instrumentation and had an organ. Many congregations preferred not to use instruments at all. For congregations that could not afford an organ, but did want instruments, portable instruments such as many types of flutes, bass fiddles, and the English guitar were used. The violin was a prevalent instrument in the colonial period, but some congregations considered them "the devil's instrument," and so did not always include them in the early colonial period. But as the violin became more acceptable, its use became more widespread.

English Protestant settlers tended to promote religious singing over singing secular songs as the latter might be seen as idleness. But secular songs were not usually forbidden. Songs sung for dancing included instruments, and participants might sing together. The instruments varied according to what was available. English instruments that might have been used for dancing included the concertina, the button accordion (diatonic accordion), drums, flutes, whistles, and the fiddle.

The English religious choral tradition combined with songs from secular folk music brought from England gave rise to a new American choral tradition. A selftaught composer, William Billings published the first book of music composed in America in 1770, The New England Psalm Singer. Unlike schooled composers in England, Billings did not see a strict divide between religious and secular songs, and so used meters of dance tunes in some of his compositions to create hymns that were livelier than those brought from England. He also developed the fuguing tune, in which the singers divide up to sing overlapping lyrics. Unlike familiar rounds, this division of singers occurred in the midst of hymns. Fuguing continues to be part of American composing today, and early fuguing songs are still sung as part of the shapenote singing tradition. As was common in the era, the names for the tunes were given as place names, unrelated to the text of the songs, as the tunes might be reused for other lyrics, so, for example, Billings's composition "Berlin" is the name of the tune rather than the song, and has nothing to do with the city of Berlin, Germany.

The words for most of the songs in The New England Psalm Singer were drawn from hymns and poems of the English hymn writer, Isaac Watts. A song that became the second most commonly sung song of the American Revolutionary War, after "Yankee Doodle," was "Chester," with both music and words by Billings. He revised these lyrics for his second book, The Singing Master's Assistant, published in 1778. It was this version that became most famous and was an early anthem for the United States. (See the related article: Shape Note Singing.)

In addition to patriotic songs entirely composed by Americans, English songs provided the tunes for American patriotic lyrics. The song of a London gentleman's club, the Anacreontic Society, provided the basis for the tune of "The Star Spangled Banner." "God Save the Queen," provided the music for "My Country 'Tis Of Thee." The exact origin of the comic English song "Yankee Doodle" is not known, but in its early history in America it was a song the British soldiers sang to disparage the colonial soldiers during the French and Indian War. It was then sung back to the British with a variety of lyrics during the American Revolutionary War. For more on this topic, see the article "Patriotic Melodies."

With the exception of songs for dancing and for worship, traditional English songs are usually performed by a single singer, with no instrumental accompaniment. Embellishments to the song tend to be subtle, with the focus on the lyrics to the song. A small number of related tunes are used as well, with variations occurring as tunes are adapted to the lyrics of different songs. Because many people knew a common set of tunes, it was possible for the lyrics of an English song or ballad printed on a song sheet to be picked up and sung by someone who had not heard the song sung before. Song sheets often referenced the tune to which the song was to be sung. With the tunes kept simple, much of the creativity of English song is found in the lyrics. For example "The Derby Ram" tells of a fantastically huge ram that people could walk under and upon.

Warde Forde, Frency Oriet, and Pat Ford

Warde Ford (left), Frency Oriet (center background), and Pat Ford (right) with Pat Ford's children. Ward, Pat, and Bogue Ford were singers from Wisconsin. This photograph was taken at the Shasta Dam construction site, near Shasta, California, where the three brothers worked in 1939

In the early twentieth century folksong collectors in the United States began using portable recording equipment to document songs. These solo English songs, sung just as they might have been sung by early settlers, were one of the types of songs they sought out. In the 1930s and 1940s, ethnomusicologist Sidney Robertson Cowell documented a group of related singers, the Walker and Ford families of Wisconsin, who had handed down English and Irish songs for generations. Songs performed by brothers Warde, Pat, and Bogue, and their uncle Robert Walker, are available in this presentation. Warde Ford had a particularly good memory for songs, which he had learned from his mother, from his uncle, and from loggers while working in his uncle's logging camp. [1]

Warde Ford's version of "The Bishop of Canterbury" (also called "King John and the Bishop of Canterbury") demonstrates the plain style of English Ballad singing. The ballad tells a fictional story about King John of England, who ruled from 1199 until 1216, and is thought to be among the oldest ballads brought to North America by English settlers.

The descendents of English settlers continued to compose and perform ballads and songs in this unaccompanied solo style. "Little Brown Bulls" is an occupational ballad of North American lumbermen in the English style. It uses a tune closely related to that of "The Bishop of Canterbury." In this case we can compare the way Warde Ford sings "Little Brown Bulls" to "Little Brown Bulls," as sung by the man he learned it from, his uncle, Robert Walker. Like Warde Ford, singers tried to learn and remember lyrics exactly, but, over many generations, changes crept in. "King William was King James's Son," sung by George Vinton Graham of California in 1939, is an example of an English song, but the names have changed, as King James did not have a son named William.

American singers of English ballads did sometimes add instruments as they became available in the New World. The mountain dulcimer (or Appalachian dulcimer) was stringed lap instrument created in North America based on lap instruments in Europe. Early versions are thought to have been made in the eighteenth century. Singing ballads to a simple string instrument such as a lute or a harp was characteristic of Western European songs of the nobility. So it is not certain whether the addition of the mountain dulcimer or other stringed instruments to ballad singing in North America was a new form of singing to the settlers, or harked back to an earlier European style that was familiar to them. In the video of her concert at the Library of Congress in 2005, Margaret MacArthur performs English ballads with a mountain dulcimer beginning with a song from the Robin Hood cycle of ballads.

Because of the centuries of exchange of songs among the English in the British Isles and in North America, and the changes to them that has resulted, it is sometimes difficult to determine the origins of particular songs. For example, the murder ballad "Pretty Polly," is well known in the English speaking world, and its exact origin is uncertain. This example is played on the banjo and sung by Pete Steel. The English style lumber ballad "Foreman Monroe," sung by Warde Ford, (also known as "Young Monroe" or "The Jam on Garry's Rock") is certainly North American, but has proponents who claim its has origins in particular places in Canada and in the United States.

English sea songs came to America with sailors in the colonial period, and were also exchanged between English and American sailors over time so that it may be difficult to determine where a particular song originated. "Goodbye, Fare You Well" (also known as "Homeward Bound"), for example, was a well known shanty in England, Canada, and the United States. This version is sung by Captain Leighton Robinson, Alex Barr, Arthur Brodeur, and Leighton McKenzie in Belvedere, California, in 1939. Work songs were sometimes applied or adapted for other work. Some lumbermen's songs, for example, are related to songs in the English sea shanty tradition. "The Sailor's Alphabet," for example, found in both England and the United States, is related to the American work song "The Lumberjack's Alphabet."

As the English settlers in America encountered people of various other ethnic groups, and instruments were brought by settlers or made in North America, some singers began adding instruments that had no previous place in the English tradition. For example, as settlers from England moved westward, they met up with Spanish settlers who had brought the guitar from Spain, and this was added to the repertoires of many American ethnic groups, including the English. In 1900, mail order catalogs began selling instruments such as violins, mandolins, guitars, and banjos, making these more available to people across the United States then they were previously and subsequently changing the ways that music was performed. The banjo, a North American version of an African instrument, quickly became more widely adopted among singers of English songs.

As new song styles developed in the United States, they often made their way to England. Following tours by American minstrels in the 1860s, blackface minstrel shows and vaudeville were adapted and presented in England, and continued there longer than in the United States, inspiring The Black and White Minstrel Show television program that ran between 1958 and 1978. With the advent of radio and television, this exchange became seamless. When the Beatles arrived in the United States for the first time in 1964, the press dubbed them "The British Invasion," as their mastery of American rock and roll was surprising to American audiences. The term came to be applied to the phenomenon of British rock groups, such as the Rolling Stones, finding audiences in the United States. But given the long shared musical history of England and the United States, the common interest in American musical styles should not have been such a revelation. Rock music from England has had a continuing popularity among American audiences and influence on American composers, just as bands from the United States continue to be popular in England. It is likely that this threecenturiesold exchange of music and song will continue.


  1. On some recordings Warde Ford identifies himself as "Boney" Ford, which was a nickname. [back to article]


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English American Song
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