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Pilgrim Songs

Edward Winslow’s Good Newes from New-England published in 1624 in London begins its narrative 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 rather than one of festive celebration and culinary surfeit.

The Good Newes begins not with happy feasting by 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, turkey, and venison, the natives are filling their quivers with new arrows.

Squanto, whom Winslow calls Tisquantum, figures prominently in the account, though he doesn’t mention that the native had been taken back to England in 1605 by Captain George Weymouth. In London he was cultivated as an interpreter and guide for the exploration and exploitation of New England by Sir Ferdinando Gorges, owner of the Plymouth Company. After several crossings of the Atlantic, Squanto had come back to what would become Massachusetts only in 1619, the year before the Pilgrims’ arrival on his native shores.

Winslow, who would go on to serve several terms as Governor of the Plymouth Colony in the 1630s before returning permanently to England to join Oliver Cromwell’s puritanical government, refers to Squanto merely as an “Interpreter” and doesn’t trust him at all, seeing his 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, 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, [Tisquantum] 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.”  But Tisquantum’s intelligence was reliable: the illegal immigrants from across the big water were in possession of biological weapons of mass destruction. Winslow’s Good Newes is bad news for the locals and for people across the continent.

As Squanto’s turbulent life ends in 1623, apparently beset by the plague of smallpox Winslow denies having stockpiled, he has just engaged in further negotiations between the Pilgrims and natives. Yet Winslow reports Squanto’s death without the least bit of 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 inhabitants at close hand.  Good Newes purports to be an account not just of warfare and subterfuge, but of local customs.

Among these were music, and Winslow offers what 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 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 another Englishman, but from the other side of the continent: Sir Francis Drake on the California Coast in 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 Hinde demonstrates how important music was not only for his own spirits, but also as a psychological weapon in inter-cultural relations and warfare: 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 Native Americans 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 Europeans were pale ghosts of their ancestors who had come out of 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 Hinde 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 lofted to the one true God enthralled 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.”  That Gnaah may have been an attempt by the Miwoks to evoke the nasal English singing of the period. The psalms—the music of the newly Chosen People and the central Protestant contribution to communal religious singing—were first heard in the Americas not when the Pilgrims landed on Cape Cod but when adventurers arrived on the Pacific Coast. The debut of Christian song on American dry land was a hymn to Manifest Destiny sung at its terminus almost three centuries in advance of its fulfillment.

It was a French religious refugee in seventeenth-century Switzerland who composed the central melody for the European conquest of North America. In the mid-1540s Louis Bourgeois joined John Calvin in Geneva and 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 that 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 of European domination of this continent.

When the Puritans landed in Plymouth in November of 1620, they had  with them copies of The Book of Psalmes published in 1612 in Amsterdam and “Englished” by another refugee, Henry Ainsworth, who had printed the volume for use by the 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 the entire world, then a good part of it would indeed be subjugated or destroyed by their Godly mission. 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.

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.”

Echoing Calvin, Winslow’s fascination with the native music of Massachusetts appears colored by his own titillation at hearing songs of error and sin.

Across the eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries, the Pilgrims tenuous landing and establishment of a colony remained embedded in the narrative of American nation-building not at Thanksgiving, itself a nineteenth-century reinvention, 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 was, as always, “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 in its chilling words updated to the expansionist mission of the newly formed United States of America, then only a decade old.  In this Old World hymn updated to New World needs, one can sense the ghosts of the Native Americans listening still.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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