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Edward Winslow’s Good Newes from New-England published in 1624 in London begins its account in November of 1621. There is no word of the first Thanksgiving. That didn’t happen until 1623 and was a day of devout prayer and penance not one of overt celebration in the modern sense.
The Good Newes begins not with happy feasting between natives and newcomers, but with the threat of war: “the Great people of Nanohigganset, which are reported to be many thousands strong, began to breath forth many threats against us; the common talke of our neighbour Indians on all sides was of the preparation they made to come against us.” Rather than bringing gifts of “Indian Corne,” oysters, and venison, the natives were filling their quivers with new arrows. This Good Newes is bad news for the locals, and, eventually, for people across the continent.
Squanto, whom Winslow calls Tisquantum, figures prominently in the account. Winslow refers to him merely as an Interpreter and doesn’t trust him at all, seeing the native’s main motive as self-aggrandizement—“to make himself great in the eyes of his Country men, by meanes of his neerenesse and favour with us.” Tisquantum was not a sower of corn but of dissent and intrigue, a spreader of rumor not organic fertilizer: “So that he might possesse his Countrymen with the greater feare of us, and so consequently of himself, [Tisquntum] told [the Indians] wee had the plague buried in our store-house, which at our pleasure wee could send forth to what place or people wee should, and desstroy them therewith, though wee stirred not from home.” Tisquntum was hardly issuing warm invitations to come to the newcomers Thanksgiving table, nor receiving one himself.
When Squanto’s turbulent life ends in 1623 soon after engaging in further negotiations between the Pilgrims and natives, Winslow reports it without the least bit sympathy, as if he got what he deserved: “God strucke Tisquantum with sicknesse, in so much as hee there died.” Others maintain Squanto was poisoned by Wampanoags distrustful of his uncomfortably close relations with the white people.
Winslow played a crucial role in establishing the foothold for the European Giant that would subsequently stride across the continent. He was chief delegate in treating with the natives after the arrival in Plymouth in December of 1620, and had ample opportunity to observe the natives at close hand. Good Newes purports to be an account not just of warfare and subertfuge, but of native customs. Winslow was quite interested in music, and his may be the first ethnomusicological observations made by a “New American.” He remarks on the “musicall notes” of the natives’ burial and mourning customs; these songs seem strange to him, but he does not dismiss them as ugly. Indeed, Winslow registers the central importance of singing for the natives, remarking that in their religious meetings they would “sing, daunce, feast, give thanks, and hang up Garlands and other things.” Over these first few decades, the natives continued to give thanks, though they had increasingly less to be thankful for.
Before leaving for America by way of England, the Pilgrims had bidden farewell in July of 1620 to the large English congregation of Separatists in Leiden, in The Netherlands where the Pilgrims had lived for more than a decade. Writing in his Hypocrisie Unmasked of 1646, Winslow recalled:
“They that stayed at Leiden feasted us that were to go [to America] at our pastor’s house, [it] being large; where we refreshed ourselves, after tears, with singing of Psalms, making joyful melody in our hearts as well as with the voice, there being many of our congregation very expert in music; and indeed it was the sweetest melody that ever mine ears heard.”
“Sweet” is not a word that Winslow applies to the music he heard after arriving in America, but his own reports suggest real interest in it, just as other accounts portray the fascination of Native American’s with the new music arriving from Europe.
The most resonant of these comes from Sir Francis Drake on the California Coast of 1579. Drake bought a consort of viol players and trumpeters on his voyage around the world. That he made space for such musicians in the close quarters of the Golden Hind demonstrates how important music was not only for his own spirits, but also as a psychological weapon for inter-cultural relations: the intricacy of English polyphony was a sign to captured Spaniards asked to dine with Drake that high standards obtained even at the outer reaches of the globe. To the Indians it was a magical music from another world, a sign of things to come.
Finding their way ashore north of present day San Francisco in the lagoon now known as Drake’s Bay inside Points Reyes, Drake and his men were met by Miwok women inflicting “unnaturall violence against themselves, crying and shreeking piteously, tearing their flesh with their nailes from their cheeks.” They seem to have thought that the pale ghosts of their ancestors had come back from the sea. As the nephew of the English seaman, also named Sir Francis Drake, put it in his The World Encompassed, an account of the voyage published a half century after its completion, the men of the Golden Hind then “fell to prayers, and by signes of lifting up our eyes & hands to heaven, signified unto them the God whom we did serve, and whom they ought to worship.” The devotional music of the Englishmen enthralls the Miwoks: “In the time of which prayers, singing of psalms, and reading of certain chapters in the Bible, they sate very attentively. Yea they took such pleasure in our singing of psalmes, that whensoever they resorted to us, their first request was commonly this, Gnaah, by which they intreated that we should sing.” The Gnaah probably refers to the nasal English singing of the period. The psalms — the music of the newly Chosen People and that central Protestant contribution to communal singing — were first heard on the West Coast, as if offering up a prelude to Manifest Destiny at its ultimate geographical destination and two-and-half-centuries in advance of its fulfillment.
It was a French religious refugee in 16th-century Switzerland who composed the central melody for the European conquest of North America. By the middle of the 1540s, Louis Bourgeois had joined John Calvin in Geneva, where together they compiled the Geneva Psalter. Bourgeois’ melody for the 100th psalm in Calvin’s French translation would become the most famous of all Protestant hymns. Commonly known as Old 100th in reference to its placement in the seminal collection of Reformation song, the melody is used every Sunday across the world as the Protestant Doxology: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” It is the hymn of Thanksgiving, not only in the general sense, but also across four centuries European domination of this continent.
When the Puritans landed in Plymouth in December of 1612, they had with them copies of the The Book of Psalmes published in 1612 in Amsterdam and “Englished” by another refugee, Henry Ainsworth, who had brought out the volume for the use of fugitive congregations in Holland. Ainsworth’s translation of the 100th psalm is closer to John Calvin, than the general words of thanks sung to the modern Doxology:
Showt to Jehovah, al the earth;
Serv ye Jehovah with gladness;
Before Him come with singing mirth;
Know that Jehovah He God is.
The key phrase is “al the earth,” though little did this small band of Puritans know that, if not all the world, then a good part of it would indeed be subjugated or more likely destroyed by their Godly mission.
Louis Bourgeois had not only compiled and probably written many of the tunes in the Geneva Psalter, but he also wrote simple four-part polyphonic settings of fifty of these melodies. Winslow’s claim that many of the soon-to-be Pilgrims were “expert in music” might suggest that they were capable of this kind of music-making, though the reference only to “melody” would more likely indicate that the Pilgrim’s followed the standard practice of psalm-singing in the Netherlands, in which only the melody was delivered.
Like others before and since, from Plato to the Taliban, the Pilgrims took seriously the power of music, both its uplifting potential and its dangerous capacity to lubricate the spirit for sin. In this they followed John Calvin himself, who in his preface to the Psalter of 1543, acknowledged music as a viable means of recreation and pleasure, but cautioned that one “ought to be the more careful not to abuse it, for fear of soiling and contaminating it … It should not be allowed to give free rein to dissolution, or to make ourselves effeminate in disordered delights, and that it should not become the instrument of lasciviousness nor of any shamelessness.”
Though he never says so directly, Winslow’s fascination with the native music of the Massachusetts has something of the titillation of hearing the song of error and sin.
The bogus myths of native and European cooperation become part of the Thanksgiving ritual only after the natives of the Massachusetts Bay had all but disappeared.
The large statue of the Wampanoaog sachem, Massasoit, whom Winslow’s admires for his generous attitude towards the English, was erected at Plymouth only in 1921, three hundred years after the Thanksgiving celebration that never took place. He is in loincloth rather than the loose fitting breeches, which Winslow compares to the slovenly trousers of the Irish.
The truest attitudes of the Pilgrims towards their new land could be heard in the psalms they sang and which continued to serve as the music of American conquest.
Across the 18th and into the 19th centuries, the Pilgrims remained embedded in the narrative of American nation-building not at Thanksgiving, itself a 19th-century re-invention, but at the commemoration of the Landing at Plymouth, celebrated on December 22nd in New England and beyond. A Broadsheet from 1800 from these pre-Christmas celebrations, demonstrates that mutual respect between natives and colonizers was not part of Pilgrim pageantry.
The central hymn of the 1800 commemorations of the Landing at Plymouth, as always, was “Old Hundred.” The text adapts the old Pilgrim psalm to new purposes of Manifest Destiny.
Hail, Pilgrim Fathers of our race!
With grateful hearts, your toils we trace;
Again this Votive Day returns,
And finds us bending o’er your urns.
Jehovah’s arm prepar’d the road;
The Heathen vanish’d at his nod:
He gave his Vine a lasting root;
He load its goodly boughs with fruit.
The hills are cover’d with its shade;
Its thousand shoots like cedars spread:
Its branches to the sea expand,
And reach to broad Superior’s strand.
Of Peace and Truth the gladsome ray
Smiles in our skies and cheers the day;
And a new Empire’s splendent wheels
Roll o’er the tops of western hills.
The voices of the Pilgrims can be heard in that melody and even in those updated words. And one can sense the attentive ghosts of the Native Americans listening still.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at email@example.com