For a song: the evolution of American music in the colonies

On Maryland History

January 07, 1991|By Peter Kumpa

AMERICA was born singing. The first settlers brought their songs with them, like their language and faith, the clothes they liked and the diet they preferred, the plans for their own style of home. They sang as they prayed. They sang as they worked. And they went on singing in play and courtship, in joyful reunion and in sad isolation.

The songs and melodies of old were a comfort to new arrivals in a strange and new world. Each group clung to its traditional music like a security blanket. Only PeterKumpaafter a time were there adaptations and changes, and not until the approach of the Revolutionary War was there a need for new and original American songs.

The English gentlemen of Virginia brought in old English ballads. The first slave ship in 1619 brought in the rhythms and the magic of Africa. The Pilgrims brought in their Ainsworth Psalter, the one book on the Mayflower. They chanted more than they sang their sacred collection of psalms. Protestants had joyful hymns which were promoted by the champion of popular church music, Martin Luther. Once, when Luther was criticized for borrowing songs sung by sinners and heathens, he replied, "Why should the devil have all the best tunes?"

Early Maryland had the best of many worlds, a touch of Latin from the Calverts and other Roman Catholics, enough Protestants officially treated with "mildness" and toleration, a mixture of easy-going Virginia and some of the stark Puritan culture of the North. If the Puritans had brought their harsh laws for the "speedy demolition of all organs, images and superstitious monuments in cathedrals," they would have been ignored in this colony. For in the early decades, there wasn't much except song.

Many groups contributed to the American reservoir of song. That Thanksgiving favorite, "We Gather Together," was a Dutch import to New Amsterdam in 1626. The French, Germans, Spanish and Irish also added to the New World's musical lore. The Scots had "Auld Lang Syne" as early as 1694, even before Robert Burns wrote his commanding words.

Each ship from England brought new songs as well as new settlers. By the end of the 17th century, for example, "Greensleeves," was a popular import. Britain had a long history of ballads. Usually these songs were distributed through broadsides, single sheets sold for the smallest sums and hawked in the streets of London.

If there had been a hit parade, perhaps the ballad, "Barbara Allen," would have been at the top of the charts the longest. By the time the revolution came, it was already centuries old, popular all over the colonies. It was said to be the favorite of George Washington. Like so many ballads, it is a song of romantic love with the sad and weepy ending.

The story goes that in the month of May a love sick Sweet William lay in his bed dying. As a final request, he asks his servant to bring to him the one he loved the best, the one to whom he had given his heart, Barbara Allen. But she is hardhearted and refuses to come. Sweet William dies. Only when she hears the funeral bells ringing for him does Barbara Allen fall into remorse. She asks that his grave be dug wide and deep so that she might lie with him.

"I'll die for him in sorrow," she says -- and does. They are buried together. From Sweet William's grave there grows a blood-red rose, while from that of Barbara Allen comes a briar.

"The briar and the rose they grew together,

"'Til they could not grow any higher;

"They wrapped and they tied in a true lover's knot,

"For all true lovers to admire."

There were many versions of the song throughout the American colonies. Sometimes it is called Barbara Ellen, not Barbara Allen. And Sweet William sometimes is called Sweet Willie or Sweet Jimmy or Johnny or something else. The Virginia Folklore Society collected 92 different versions of the ballad in the early part of this century. Some 36 of those had significant differences. A child's version of the song, for example, leaves out the slighting of Sweet William and the rose-and-briar finale.

Another type of early ballad was the "riddling song," which features a dialogue. In "Lord Randal," a mother questions her son. Each verse ends, "Make my bed soon, for I'm sick at heart, and I fain would lie down." Lord Randal tells his mother that he will be leaving his brother silver and gold, but he is leaving his sweetheart only rope, so she can hang herself. In the "Lord Ronald" version, everyone is given treats except for the lord's lover, who is to be left only "a gallow's tree" from which to hang.

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