Music in the Early American Republic

Ann Ostendorf

Early American ears pulsed, lips hummed, and feet shuffled to the multitude of sounds infusing life’s rhythms. During the earliest decades of the nation, virtually everyone heard, made, and moved to music. In an age before broadly accessible commercial entertainment, where one’s routine labors begged for distracting relief, song and dance enlivened life’s tedium. Music filled an important social niche in the publically lived do-it-yourself world of early America. During an era before recording devices, the ephemeral life of sound resonated solely around those who made it. Early American music constructed a momentary community of listeners who could create or transcend the young nation’s refashioning social order.

Describing this world of early American music challenges any historian precisely because of music’s ubiquitous presence in the lives of all Americans. Because nearly everyone made music, and because music could be used in any number of ways, the shear variety of sounds and sites of performance preclude easy generalization. Music held the social order together, but it might also be used to challenge the status quo. People sang privately to sooth their sorrows and publically to celebrate joyous events. Song might awaken the sacred forces to one’s aid; it might also embody profane desires and accompany riotous behaviors. Bells pealed to mark the seasons and to call a community to arms. Some worked to music, while others played. Music might even provide one’s livelihood. Musical acumen and literacy gave the educated elite status, while common folk employed music to express equally as meaningful identities. In all these ways, music symbolized, expressed, and transcended the diversities of early America. This essay treats some of the particular music making activities of Native Americans, the enslaved, new immigrants, and American-born United States citizens. Interwoven with an exploration of some of the sounds made by these groups of people, it considers the ways music contributed to their religious, festive, political, and artistic activities. Early Americans made music in multiple sites and for diverse ends. Our recognition of its significance to them opens new avenues of historical discovery.[1]

Native American Music

Native American music styles in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries remained as diverse as there were tribal communities. Despite this, some broad generalization can be made when compared with non-Native sounds and uses of music. Singing rather than instrumental performances grounded Native music making, although drums and other percussion instruments accompanied many songs, as did flutes and whistles in certain regions. Indigenous songs nearly always connected to spirituality even if ostensibly made for other reasons, and the efficacy of a ritual might require the appropriate song to be sung. Yet like music-makers the world over, specific pieces accompanied dancing, storytelling, or even games. Certain songs would be used for a particular ceremonial or seasonal event in traditional and innovative ways. With the increasing arrival of newcomers to the continent, tribal people adopted and adapted European instruments, such as the fiddle, to indigenous music making practices. Records kept by Spanish missionaries in California and New Mexico reveal the centrality of music to their conversion efforts. These priests used fluency with European music and instruments to measure degrees of assimilation, an important gauge in their efforts towards complete and permanent conversion. Yet even after integrating aspects of European music, to Native Americans, as one scholar notes of Ojibwa music, “songs fundamentally did things in the world.” As such, Native people categorized songs in terms of their usefulness, for example as love songs, dream songs, or pipe songs. Songs also mediated personal bonds and functioned as part of ceremonial protocol. Music built and stabilized relationships within a tribe, between tribes, and between tribal and non-tribal people. Native American music facilitated interactions, including those between the human and spiritual worlds.[2]

Sacred Music

Music performed in the context of sacred observances was also important to African and European born and descended people. By the turn of the nineteenth century, the hymns of Congregationalist Churches had shifted from ritual to art with a full support system of church choirs, singing masters, published psalters, and singing schools. The first known black American published composer, the African-born former slave Newport Gardner of Rhode Island, emerged from this singing-school movement. By 1810, over 5000 musical compositions by American psalmodists had appeared in print, including Richard Allen’s 1801 hymn collection for his Philadelphia African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first known compilation of sacred music for a black congregation. By the 1820s, singing societies influenced by German Romanticism, such as the Boston Handel and Haydn Society, attached moral uplift to certain song styles. Such institutionally supported sacred music competed with the music culture enlivened by the Second Great Awakening. These styles necessitated accessible and individual expressiveness as part of revivalist religiosity. A lack of musical literacy in the rural areas of the revivals led to call-and-response song patterns and singing “marked by spontaneity, immediacy, emotionality, and the use of well-known tunes.” This trend remained true among black urban congregations as well, in which the act of vocalizing could inspire worshipers even more than a song’s lyrics. A central message of this sacred music style invoked the fundamental appeal of the Great Awakening ideology: God’s grace was available to all.[3]


Often in conjunction with religious purposes, Americans heard an increase in music making during holidays. In primarily agricultural communities, early winter was a time to celebrate after a demanding harvest season. The English wassailing tradition, whereby lower sorts intruded into the homes of the wealthy singing demands for food and drink in exchange for goodwill, continued in early America. Though less meaningful by the nineteenth century with the demise of older traditional hierarchies and obligations, rowdy, raucous, drunken singers paraded at night during the Christmas season even in urban areas. Drinking and singing remained intertwined as significant holiday practices. John Canoe rituals enacted during the Christmas season by African-Americans included public song and dance. In these, parading bands of musicians requested gifts of food, money, or alcohol, taking African-derived song and dance culture to the broader communities amongst whom they lived. Parades remained central to black public musical activities that “typically featured boisterous, improvised music and back-and-forth interactions between male and female spectators and parade performers.” Messages could be sung in this ritualized context not uttered in other circumstances. Cloaked in a garb of traditional holiday license, ridiculing the powerful or “singing the master,” empowered the enslaved to express feelings otherwise forbidden.[4]

Music of the Enslaved

As music scholar Jacqueline Cogdell Djedje states of African American music, “on the one hand very little disappears, but also nothing remains the same.” During the early American republic, music made by black Americans could be decidedly African, but it could also be distinctive from anything heard on that continent. The factors that shaped the nature of the African-derived music in early America largely depended upon a music maker’s exposure to the sounds of the diverse American populace. West and Central Africans made music as varied as the Europeans amongst whom those enslaved would eventually live in America. They carried their local musical expectations to their new homes across the Atlantic, where they accessed multi-continental repertoires. They and their descendants built upon musical heritages both deep and broad.[5]

During this era, diverse African songs, dances, instruments, as well as rituals and festivals, remained significant to enslaved and free black populations. Congo Square in New Orleans, a place central to the survival and dissemination of African-derived performative traditions, persisted as a site where slaves from the city could go to socialize on Sunday afternoons. Here they sang and danced in styles from distinct homeland traditions providing not just entertainment, but also connection to one’s heritage. Some Catholic Congolese slaves performed sangamentos, the highly choreographed mock war dances accompanied with drums and bells crucial to later Mardi Gras practices. This diasporic custom combined traditionalism and adaptability more “inventive” than “invented,” evidence of continued African traditions in America. The persistence of practices such as sangamentos bound new communities together and provided cultural sustenance in the harsh new circumstances of slavery.[6]

Slaves’ lives were filled with labor. Traders might expect the enslaved to sing and even fiddle while marching in the chained coffles to the growing western plantations. Song organized regimented tasks and eased the burden of toil. The call-and-response style helped build and strengthen community. Particular songs might be appropriate for a certain labor activity, such as rowing, hoeing, or shucking corn. Work songs reinforced social bonds and hierarchies, although lyrics might challenge these with satirical rhetoric. Enslaved musicians had to master multiple genres as they performed for both the formal cotillions of elite white society and the livelier jigs, breakdowns, and reels popular with lower class white and black dancers. Black music and dance emphasized improvisation, complex rhythms, artist/audience dialogue, as well as personal stylistic competition in community-approved contexts. These African-derived music ways gained poignancy under slavery. They could even function as political statements for people denied an officially sanctioned political voice.[7]

Music and Politics

Much political activity in the young nation transpired with musical accompaniment, although at times this “music” might more appropriately be called “noise.” Drums (and even pots and pans) drew attention to community grievances, as in the “rough music” used to enforce social norms under threat. They did the same for impromptu public protests and even institutionally sanctioned civic parades. Although political music often took place in the street, taverns hosted politically infused music making as well. Concerts and balls facilitated by amateur and professional musicians raised money for a cause or commemorated significant civic events. Americans marked Independence Day and Washington’s birthday with patriotic songs, balls, and parades. They did the same to honor the Revolutionary War hero General Lafayette on his 1824–1825 tour of the country. This shared musical commemorative culture helped knit the young nation together. In addition, stage performances allowed for the consideration, creation, and affirmation of one’s sense of self in relation to the diverse American population. An Irish immigrant character might sing as a laughable bumpkin or a liberty-seeking republican refugee. Staged characters sung a combination of their old and newly forming national, ethnic, and racial identities during these decades when the traditional order had become increasingly unstable. Music was central to these performances that shaped the nation.[8]

One good example is the song “Yankee Doodle,” which might accurately be described as the first American national anthem. Singing “Yankee Doodle” exemplified what one scholar has called a “sophisticated rural self-parody.” As a celebratory comparative to British pretentiousness and a glorification of a distinct American character, singing Yankee Doodle in the young nation remained a political act. An infinite array of locally created verses, mostly now lost to modern singers of the tune, reveal a proud articulation of American rusticity (as well as the glorification of sexual adventures and drunken escapades). Other popular early American songs borrowed heavily from British music culture, but were transformed with deep sarcasm to serve American ends. Sailors and boatmen played an essential role in this transition. Music was already crucial to the labors of these men who sang to keep time as they rowed, heaved, and pulled. The centrality of American seamen to securing the legitimacy of the new nation led to the development of maritime-themed patriotic songs in particular.[9]

Immigrant Music

Though native-born Americans employed music to shape the nation’s identity, the significance of European immigrant musicians to early United States music cannot be overstated. English, German, French, and Italian musicians fundamentally shaped the young country’s sacred, military, social, and concert music. They published songsters, organized bands, performed in orchestras, led educational efforts, and ran music-related businesses. In addition, the growing American sheet-music industry facilitated domestic exposure to diverse immigrant sounds. Published songs denoted as Irish, Scottish, and Italian helped invent the idea of ethnicity in America, even if they were only loosely based on actual regional European styles. Irish ballads and dances remained popular through the early nineteenth century due to immigrants influenced by the Celtic cultural revival, as well as Irish music’s fundamental role in British American culture. Nostalgia-infused “traditional” Irish music (and musicians) found commercial success in the young nation. As such, it became a genre of music that bonded an Irish-American ethnic community together, introduced Irish culture to those unfamiliar with it, and entrenched stereotypes about the Irish. Similarly, Americans held Scottish folksongs in high esteem as they imagined a disappearing Scottish primitivism. Later German arrivals initiated the rise of singing societies, called Männerchöre, which functioned as social and musical organizations. These not only helped keep German culture alive in America by the repetition of musical forms, but they also provided support systems though which immigrant communities could remain active and strong. These same immigrant musicians facilitated the development of formal European-style concert traditions in the United States.[10]

Art Music

In the earliest years of the century, no musical style or genre was reserved for a particular class of people. Concert halls welcomed all to their performances, although elites remained segregated in boxes from the messiness of the pit. Concert music had existed in East Coast urban centers for a century when in the 1830s wealthy patrons financed via subscriptions the first professional orchestras. Lacking the aristocratic tradition of court and church patronage, the early American music “industry” had to function as locally financed businesses. New Orleans was the first American city to support an opera company. French operas had been performed in the city from at least 1796. A decade later, in the span of four months, New Orleanians could witness twenty-one performances, which included sixteen different operas from nine composers. This town of only 12,000, one third of who were enslaved and who attended performances on discounted tickets, clearly valued and invested in public music performances. An evening listening to opera often ended with dancing at a ball. Though most of these dances were segregated by race, authorities could only enforce this rule with limited success. From the 1790s through the 1830s, the number of theater and concert performances grew, although not until the 1840s did the United States develop the necessary infrastructure to support the performing arts broadly. Immigrant musicians made up the majority of these professionals and typically performed European composed pieces from the traditional European canon.[11]

Yet in these same settings, audiences demanded patriotic pieces. Bands formed from discharged military musicians honored such wishes. Most towns supported at least one band by the early nineteenth century whose members played in the streets as often as in the concert halls. The hugely popular African American composer Frank Johnson led military bands and dance orchestras in the concert halls of Philadelphia and cities across Europe. These democratic assumptions about experiences with music changed by mid-century with the growing sense of moral uplift attached to certain types of music. As a result, musicians transformed from craftsmen to artists. By the 1840s the elite had increasingly withdrawn into performances reserved purely for their own enjoyment (such as Italian opera performed in the original language). Blackface minstrelsy, which both adopted and parodied this now-segregated art music, filled the publicly available musical performance void.[12]


The decade of the 1840s saw a marked shift in American music. By mid-century, music had become a commodity. The broader forces of the market revolution had thoroughly altered American music. Industrial development spurred by transportation innovations, the rise of cities, and an increase in immigration changed the sounds and sites of music in America forever. European virtuosos, such as Ole Bull and Jenny Lind, toured even into the American hinterlands. As the middle class family withdrew into a private sphere, they simultaneously domesticated music making. The parlor piano, the sheet music industry, and the greater access to touring performers reinforced each other; mass commercial sound styles grew. The rise of widely and cheaply available popular music in all its various forms shaped composers’ and publishers’ choices. Blackface minstrelsy developed as a significant part of this phenomenon. Initially occupying the raucous space desired by white working class men, blackface minstrelsy entered the domestic sphere as well. The broadly participatory public music making so normal in the young nation had increasingly been overshadowed by professional commercial activities.[13]

Yet this commercialization only went so far. Attempts to repress the earthy, bawdy, vernacular, oral music cultures considered unbecoming to a legitimate nation only partially succeeded. In the 1830s, when the city of New Orleans introduced a formal parade to officially conclude the carnival season, they hoped to structure and control the chaotic parading accompanied by boisterous song and dance. Instead, citizens continued to march in “rich confusion, up and down the streets, wildly shouting, singing, laughing, drumming, fiddling, fifeing . . . as they wend their reckless way . . . laughing loudly at threatened punishment.” Though much about the sounds, sites, performers, and performances had changed, much still remained the same. An exuberant humanity pulsated with playful, personal, and public music making. Our recognition of their expressiveness provides a richer and more complete understanding of the lives of early Americans.[14]


Ann Ostendorf is Associate Professor of History at Gonzaga University. She is the author of Sounds American: national Identity and the Music Cultures of the Lower Mississippi River Valley, 1800-1860. Her current research is on the histories of the Roma (Gypsy) in the colonial Atlantic world.


[1] For a concise history of the Early American Republic, see Paul E. Johnson, The Early American Republic, 1789–1829 (2006).

[2] Victoria Lindsay Levine, “American Indian Musics, Past and Present,” in The Cambridge History of American Music, ed. David Nicholls (1998), 4–12; Kate Van Winkle Keller with John Koegel, “Secular Music to 1800,” in The Cambridge History of American Music, 60–61; Nym Cooke, “Sacred Music to 1800,” in The Cambridge History of American Music, 79; Michael D. McNally, Ojibwe Singers: Hymns, Grief, and a Native Culture in Motion (2000), 26–28.

[3] Cooke, “Sacred Music to 1800,” The Cambridge History of American Music, 81–83, 97–99; Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History (1997), 68–89; Katherine K. Preston, “Art Music from 1800–1860,” in The Cambridge History of American Music, 197.

[4] Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of America’s Most Cherished Holiday (1997), 9¬¬–11, 16–17, 42–45, 261–62, 285–91; Roger D. Abrahams, Singing the Master: The Emergence of African-American Culture in the Plantation South (1992); William D. Piersen, “African American Festive Style and the Creation of American Culture,” in Riot and Revelry in Early America, ed. William Pencak, Matthew Dennis, and Simon P. Newman (2002), 256–68.

[5] Jacqueline Cogdell Djedje, “African American Music to 1900,” in The Cambridge History of American Music, 103–34. Two classic works on black music in Early America include Dana J. Epstein, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War (2003) and Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History (1997).

[6] Jeroen Dewulf, From the Kingdom of Kongo to Congo Square: Kongo Dances and the Origins of the Mardi Gras Indians (2017), xvi; Freddi Williams Evans, Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans (2011).

[7] Djedje, “African American Music,” The Cambridge History of American Music, 103–34; Abrahams, Singing the Master.

[8] William Pencak, “Introduction: A Historical Perspective,” in Riot and Revelry, 5-6; Sterling E. Murray, “Music and Dance in Philadelphia’s City Tavern, 1773–1790,” in American Musical Life in Context and Practice to 1865, ed. James R. Heintze (1994), 3–47; Ann Ostendorf, Sounds American: National Identity and the Music Cultures of the Lower Mississippi River Valley, 1800–1860 (2011), 90–98; Jeffrey H. Richards, Drama, Theatre, and Identity in the American New Republic (2005), 5–8.

[9] Nissenbaum, Battle for Christmas, 25–26; William Pencak, “Play as Prelude to Revolution: Boston, 1765–1776,” in Riot and Revelry, 141–49; Paul A. Gilje, To Swear Like A Sailor: Maritime Culture in America, 1750–1850 (2016), 157–81; Ann Ostendorf, “The Mythical Musical Boatmen: Integrating National Icons in Antebellum American Culture,” American Music 37 (forthcoming).

[10] Edward C. Wolf, “Peter Erben and America’s First Lutheran Tunebook in English,” in American Musical Life, 49–74; James R. Heintz, “Gaetano Carusi: From Sicily to the Halls of Congress,” in American Musical Life, 75–132; Jon W. Finson, The Voices that Are Gone: Themes in Nineteenth-Century American Popular Song (1994), 270–84; Ostendorf, Sounds American, 4–10, 107–72; William H. A. Williams, ‘Twas Only an Irishman’s Dream: The Image of Ireland and the Irish in American Popular Song Lyrics, 1800–1920 (1996), 19–25; Michael Broyles, “Immigrant, Folk, and Regional Musics in the Nineteenth Century,” in The Cambridge History of American Music, 138¬–139, 146–147.

[11] William Brooks, “Music in American: An Overview (Part 1),” in The Cambridge History of American Music, 38–39; Henry A. Kmen, Music in New Orleans: The Formative Years, 1791–1841 (1966), 44–46, 56–74; Preston, “Art Music,” in The Cambridge History of American Music, 186–187, 192.

[12] Dale Cockrell, “Nineteenth-Century Popular Music,” in The Cambridge History of American Music, 160–162; Southern, Music of Black Americans, 108–14; Preston, “Art Music,” in The Cambridge History of American Music, 190–91; Lawrence W. Levine, Highbrow Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (1988).

[13] Preston, “Art Music,” in The Cambridge History of American Music, 200–04; Cockrell, “Nineteenth-Century Popular Music,” in The Cambridge History of American Music, 158–85; Brian Roberts, Blackface Nation: Race, Reform, and Identity in American Popular Music, 1812–1925 (2017), 25; Nicholas E. Tawa, Sweet Songs for Gentle Americans: The Parlor Song in America, 1790–1860 (1980). This essay does not deal with blackface minstrelsy, the most popular form of entertainment in the United States from the mid to late-nineteenth century. Blackface minstrelsy’s emergence in the 1830s and its surge in popularity in the 1840s falls beyond the chronological scope of the era traditionally thought of as the Early American Republic. However, its significance to American music and dance (among so much else) cannot be overstated. For scholarly treatment of blackface minstrelsy, see Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (1993); Dale Cockrell, Demons of Disorder: Blackface Minstrels and their World (1997); W. T. Lahmon, Jr., Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop (1998); William J. Mahar, Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture (1999).

[14] Dewulf, Kingdom of Kongo, 134–35; James R. Creecy, Scenes in the South (1860), 44.