Fruit Pies, Popcorn, and Music
This article originally appeared in the November 23, 1984, issue of Christianity Today.
"We feel overawed by the constellation of mysterious motives prompting Providence to send to our shores, out of all the millions who inhabited Europe, just those few thousand beings who had no music in their souls."
Common misconceptions of the Pilgrims' attitude toward music and toward life in general — such as the one above, made in 1907 by Oscar Sonneck, then music director of the Library of Congress — impoverish our appreciation for their musical legacy. We owe an incalculable debt to these early Americans for their priority on worship in music, their emphasis on music in the home, their integration of secular music as part of a balanced Christian life, and their inauguration of music education in America.
We think of the Pilgrims primarily in relation to the Puritan work ethic, Plymouth Rock, and the first Thanksgiving. However, not only should we thank them for the Thanksgiving delicacies we enjoy so much (including fruit pies and popcorn!), but also for their love of music, which is an increasingly dynamic force in our contemporary society.
The Puritans "had a granite heart and a suspicious eye for music," wrote Rupert Hughes in 1900. But there is no evidence that the Pilgrims and the Puritans hated music. True, they sang only the Psalms in church, rejecting the hymns of the German Reformation. But the Puritans actually enjoyed all kinds of fine music, giving a breadth of musical culture to early northeastern America. Gilbert Chase considers their Ainsworth Psalter "a document fully worthy to be the cornerstone of America's music" (America's Music; McGraw-Hill, 1966).
Music in worship
Identical in theology, essentially two kinds of Puritans could be distinguished by their relationship to the Anglican church. The Congregational Puritans wanted to "purify" the church and grant autonomy to each congregation. The Separatists, or Pilgrims — they called themselves "Saints" — broke cleanly with the established church (the term Pilgrim was not applied to them until the 1840s).
When James I ascended to the English throne in 1603, the Puritans petitioned him to make certain changes in the church, including "church songs and music moderated to better edification." Fed up with years of Presbyterian opposition in Scotland, King James responded by persecuting the Separatists. They fled to Holland in 1607 and 1608, where in Amsterdam they established the "First English Church of the Separation."
The Ainsworth Psalter. In 1612, the Reverend Henry Ainsworth, who had escaped to Holland in 1593, published a 342-page Psalter with the Psalms set in both poetry and prose. A graduate of Cambridge — as were many of the early Puritan leaders — he was a Hebrew scholar, a musician, and the teacher of the Amsterdam Separatists.
Ainsworth's Psalter had 39 tunes of international origin: English, French, and Dutch, including some we still sing — the familiar "Old Hundredth Psalm Tune," for example ("The Doxology" or "All People That on Earth Do Dwell"). Louis Bourgeois, music editor of John Calvin's Geneva Psalters, had written the tune for the 134th Psalm; the Puritans adopted it for the 100th. Originally much more syncopated than the way we sing it today, it was considered a "lively and jocund tune." In fact, many of the Puritan psalm tunes were so rhythmically alive and danceable that they were derisively referred to as "Geneva jigs" — even by Queen Elizabeth.
Longfellow mentions Ainsworth's Psalter when he describes Priscilla Mullins singing "Old Hundredth" in "The Courtship of Miles Standish" (angular notes refers to their diamond shape):
Open wide in her lap lay the well-worn psalm-book of Ainsworth,
Printed in Amsterdam, the words and music together,
Rough-hewn, angular notes, like stones in the wall of a churchyard,
Darkened and overhung by the running vine of the verses.