The Music of Independence: From 1776 to 1920

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In the United States, the Fourth of July often is associated with trips to the pool, good food, and fireworks. But it isn’t the only day during the warmer months that Americans take a break to observe key moments in history. 

Juneteenth had a larger recognition in 2020 as most states marked the holiday that celebrates the emancipation of those who had been enslaved in the country. Then coming up on August 18, the nation will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment that approved women’s suffrage.

As with nearly all major moments in history, there is music associated with these events and musicians who have made their mark in small and large ways. Here is a look at some of the music and people related to these key moments in history:

Independence from Britain

A few founding fathers were known for their musical talent. Two signers of the Declaration of Independence – Benjamin Franklin and Francis Hopkinson – even invented musical instruments. Franklin created the armonica, which is based on his observation of musicians making music with glasses filled with water. He is said to have enjoyed playing the armonica with his daughter.

Hopkinson, who was an organist, harpsichordist and composer, modified Franklin’s armonica to add a keyboard, and he also invented the Bellarmonic that utilized metal bells. In addition, his composition My Days Have Been so Wondrous Free is considered the earliest surviving American secular composition.

In general, this tumultuous period produced many well-known contributions to music, both contemporary and modern. Before the war, The Liberty Song penned by John Dickinson became one the earliest patriotic songs in the colonies. He set his lyrics to the British naval anthem Heart of Oak, prompting loyalists to fire back with their own version. Dickinson’s lyrics are credited with creating the motto “United we stand, divided we fall.”

Yankee Doodle sheet music published by Berdan, O. F., 1881 Courtesy: Library of Congress, Music Division

Perhaps the best-known song from the era may be Yankee Doodle. It became a popular patriotic tune among the colonists during the war despite the fact the song was written to make fun of them. The song was penned during the French and Indian War to mock colonial soldiers. 

In more modern times, music marking the era has had wide appeal. Lin-Manuel Miranda has brought the period to life with his musical Hamilton, about founding father Alexander Hamilton, who enjoyed singing and playing duets on the piano with his daughter. The musical 1776 is also filled with characters and moments – some historically accurate and some not – that pay tribute to this difficult and inspirational time in history.

Long-lasting contributions to music have also come from the descendants of political figures of the time. One noteworthy example is DuBose Heyward, a descendant of Thomas Heyward Jr., another signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Dubose wrote the novel Porgy, which was later adapted into the opera Porgy and Bess. Its cast in the early 1900s starred classically trained African American singers, who often were not given roles at the time, and they were led by African American choral director Eva Alberta Jessye – a driving force in the civil rights movement and in music. 

Emancipation from Slavery – Juneteenth

A powerful woman also has played a key role in bringing attention to Juneteenth. 93-year-old activist Opal Lee has been campaigning for years to make June 19 a national holiday. As she told The New York Times:

“So, the 4th of July? Slaves weren’t free. You know that, don’t you? … so I suggest that if we’re going to do some celebrating of freedom, that we have our festival, our educational components, our music, from June the 19 — Juneteenth — to the 4th of July. Now that would be celebrating freedom.”

The music played during Juneteenth celebrations is often from current times, but there is some recorded history of what music was relevant during the era of the Emancipation Proclamation and years afterwards.

According to the book Battle Hymns, a celebration was held when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. During the event, formerly enslaved people who had escaped during the Civil War surprised attendees by breaking out in song, singing America (My Country, ’Tis of Thee).

Outside of such celebrations, the book notes another popular piece that was sung during escapes was the powerful song Many Thousand Go. It has lyrics such as: “No more auction block for me – no more – no more. No more auction block for me. Many thousand go.”

This song was among those published in a mid-1800s anthology created by three white abolitionists who attempted to capture some of the songs and spirituals frequently sung during the years of slavery that had been passed down by oral tradition. Their collection Slave Songs of the United States is still in print today.

Beyond this oral tradition, it’s unknown what musical talent among the earliest African Americans in the United States went undiscovered amid their oppression. But there is at least one case where extraordinary circumstances led to extraordinary talent blossoming – and being recorded for posterity.

Thomas Wiggins was born into slavery. He was blind and autistic, so he could not do the hard labor expected of slaves. Plantation owners considered killing him. Instead, Wiggins was allowed to roam the plantation as a young boy, and when he found his way to the piano, his talent was discovered: it turned out he was a music prodigy and savant.

Wiggins composed his first song by age five and eventually composed hundreds of songs and could play thousands of others from memory. He became a well-known performer when plantation owners realized they could make a fortune off his performances. Wiggins performed for President James Buchanan and Mark Twain, among others. Today, some of Wiggins’ sheet music is housed at the Columbus State University Archives.

Women’s Suffrage

The movement for women’s suffrage in the United States began before the Civil War, but it did not become a national right until August 18, 1920. Music was often central in the battle to pass the 19th Amendment. There were moments when women were banned from giving speeches, so instead they sang. It was popular to take the melodies of songs like Yankee Doodle and America and change the lyrics to fit the suffrage movement.

One of the best-known songs written for women’s suffrage was The March of the Women, written by British Dame Ethel Smyth. Her song was used frequently in the United Kingdom by women fighting for the right to vote.

In the United States, a number of women who composed songs were not as bold as Smyth and used only initials or their husbands’ names on their compositions. The music also reflected the greater diversity in the nation. For example, a Yiddish song with a Jewish perspective on suffrage called Damen Rechte (Suffragettes) was published by the Hebrew Publishing Company in New York.

There also were more suffragists in the states who had the added challenge of facing discrimination for being minority women. They included women like African American poet and writer Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Native American composer and activist Zitkala Sa, who along with Smyth was featured on Pepper’s blog 19 Groundbreaking Women Composers. Their battles for equal voting rights would not end in 1920, and neither would the drive for further freedom.

Published by Hedenberg and Oakin, 1895 Courtesy: Library of Congress, Music Division

The music of the time often reflected the movement’s goal for greater freedom for women in general. In an interview, Susan B. Anthony was once quoted as saying, “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. It makes her feel as if she were independent. The moment she takes her seat … away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” Such sentiments prompted a number of pieces related to women using bicycles.

Published by E.H. Webb Music Co., 1914 Courtesy: Library of Congress, Music Division

This effort for independence also fueled anti-suffrage songs that claimed women would abandon parenting tasks and household chores if given the right to vote. This led to predictions that voting rights would lead to the decline in family life.

In the end, not much of the music that was related to the suffrage movement was recorded at the time. Much of what remains are sheet music images in national archives. Pepper has a few works on women’s suffrage and voting rights.

Some of the events designed to celebrate the amendment’s centennial milestone this year also have been cancelled or rescheduled. Up-to-date details are available on sites such as the 2020 Women’s Vote Centennial Initiative.

For general celebrations of freedom, there are a number of choral works on social justice, peace and unity.  Plus, there are a plethora of patriotic works celebrating the pursuit of independence with all its flaws, accomplishments, and ongoing efforts. As former South African President Nelson Mandela once famously said “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”


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Mary Rogelstad
Mary Rogelstad joined Pepper in 2018 as the company’s Marketing Content Coordinator. Previously she worked as a journalist in the international media and as a communications specialist at various nonprofits. In her free time, Mary has enjoyed singing in various choral groups and performing in musical theater.

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