Today, America's story spins out in the songs we
sing. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
The first music printed in
our Colonies was the Bay Psalter. That was
in 1640, only twenty years after the Pilgrims
landed. Besides a one-page tract and an eight-page
almanac, that was the first printing done here.
Music was that primary to our early settlers.
Dichter's and Shapiro's Handbook of Early
American Sheet Music, a long list of our
early printed music, helps show us who we once
were. The Bay Psalter was first. It held the
texts of hymns but no tunes. Printing notes was too
hard for our first crude press. Not 'til the 9th
edition sixty years later did the Bay
Psalter finally offer the first bare tunes
printed in the Colonies.
Religious songbooks with complete music appeared in
the early 1700s. Our first organ was built in
Philadelphia in 1737, and a music store opened
there in 1759. That same year saw the first known
secular American song -- Francis Hopkinson's lovely
lilting melody about freedom in a new land, "My
Days Have been so Wondrous Free." It would've made
a great national anthem, except (like "The Star
Spangled Banner") it's too hard for most people to
sing. The first orchestral score came out in 1791
-- "The Death Song of an Indian Chief." (I wonder
what that was!)
The American Revolution spawned all kinds of music.
The Yankee Doodle melody was around before the war,
and the familiar verse, "Yankee Doodle came to
town," doesn't seem to've appeared in print until
long after the war. The original verses were things
By now, printed music no longer served
only church services. Now it began reflecting a new
life in a new world. We wrote songs to celebrate our
presidents. We published so-called Negro Songs about
slavery. One had the title "I Sold a Guiltless Negro
Brother Ephraim sold his cow,
And bought him a commission, ...
A popular English drinking song, "To Anacreon in
Heaven," served many texts before the War of 1812.
Then Francis Scott Key wrote his poem "The Star
Spangled Banner" during the siege of Fort McHenry.
It was set to "Anacreon in Heaven" and published in
1814. Key liked that tune. He'd written another
poem for it years before:
Where mixed with the olive, the laurel shall
And form a bright wreath for the brows of the
Down through the 19th century, sheet music poured
out of our presses. We sang songs about the west
and songs about the sea. Songs made fun of each
wave of immigrants. We sang heart-rending songs
about the pathos of life -- "I'll Take You Home
Again Kathleen," "Darling Nelly Gray," and "Jeannie
with the Light Brown Hair."
We sang around the piano, we sang in the streets.
We sang until Edison and Berliner invented the new
phonograph machine that would henceforth sing for
us. Sheet music is still around, but now it's a
tool for musicians. It is no longer part of the
furniture of every household.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds