Early arrivals to America brought their cultural heritage, especially their religious music, to the new country. Now separated by an ocean from their oppressive homeland, immigrants brought a new spirit of freedom to their music of worship and ordinary life.
The Pilgrim fathers, on their treacherous 66-day voyage across the Atlantic, said their prayers and sang their songs. Upon arrival in their new home, their music began to change and to expand. They altered melodies, introduced previously forbidden harmonies, and composed new works.
Pilgrims from other traditions also contributed to the new music in the new land. The Shakers expressed their ecstatic visions and sometimes eccentric ways with a rousing “Come life, Shaker life, come life eternal! Shake, shake out of me all that is carnal.” To rid themselves of their lust, envy, and fears, they sang and danced until they dropped.
Persecuted believers from other parts of Europe abandoned their homeland for religious freedom in the United States. The Amish and Mennonites from Germanic countries brought harmonious, gentle music which can be heard today unaltered at their church services.
There was generally little difference between sacred and secular music in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. But a new tone and attitude imbued themselves into the second and third generation of American believers. The severity of ancestral repression was not so heavy on their minds in this new land.
Stern pilgrims sang lyrics mainly from Old Testament texts, but their music was generally of a lighter, happier, and hopeful tone. “Oh, how sweet to walk in this Pilgrim way leaning on the Everlasting Arms” was a newer, more uplifting statement of faith. America inspired more music of earthly opportunity and of a heavenly promise of joy and peace.
Songs for Life
Along with hymns, immigrants brought folk songs. Folk music, passed on through countless centuries by countless generations, was mostly anonymous, the voice of workers in the fields and in the streets, but as literacy spread, the names of composers came to be known. These songs, our new folk songs, were part of everyday life. With no radios or phonographs at that time, Americans sang their music throughout their lives, uniting households and communities in feelings and ideals.
These Americans were not embarrassed to express their joy or their sorrow openly and simply. In fact, the greatness of these songs, whether sacred or secular, lies in their forthrightness and simplicity. They belonged to everyone; there was no class distinction, but, for the most part, they were not of a frivolous nature. Subjects of the songs varied, sometimes prompted by historical events like the Civil War, the abolition of slavery, the industrial revolution, or a flourishing technology.
Time has immortalized the greatest and most affecting music, and this is what the world remembers. For example, while Stephen Foster’s poignant “Willie, We Have Missed You,” about a beloved boy who returns unharmed to his mother’s home, did not stem from the Civil War, it nonetheless expressed the sentiment of the war’s era. The awakening of America’s conscience regarding slavery is heard in Benjamin Hanby’s “Darling Nellie Gray,” inspired by the story of a man who escaped a plantation after seeing his own wife sold at auction. The advent of the railroad made the farthest reaches of the country accessible in a matter of days. “Crossing the Grand Sierras,” by Henry Clay Work, expresses the exuberance of a traveler on a train from the eastern shores through the central plains and mountains to the Pacific Ocean out West.
Life was short in the 19th century, a span of only about 50 years, but through some mysterious alchemy, sorrow produced some of America’s most moving music. The poet George Cooper, who lost his wife shortly after their marriage, wrote the lyrics to “Sweet Genevieve”: “Oh, Genevieve, I’d give the world to live again the lovely past.” The haunting lyrics and music by Henry L. Tucker are as powerful today as when they were first published, a century and a half ago.
Countless composers and poets have expressed love for America, but most beautiful to this listener is the poem “My Country, ’tis of Thee” by seminary student Samuel Francis Smith, who set his words to the British patriotic anthem “God Save the King.” We, of course, have no king, but we do have our great country to love, and God Himself, to hear us pray “Long may our land be bright / With Freedom’s holy light.”
A single voice might sound beautiful to our ears, but a hundred or a thousand voices raised together is the most golden and glorious sound in all the world. Standing with other people singing this song, strangers, neighbors, friends, and family, creates a marvelous experience and is no light matter. In fact, it is a great matter. It is a moment of grace and unity. There is the certain knowledge, coming from the heart rather than the mind, that we are one great family and that God is listening to our songs.
This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.