Founding Father of American Song

by David Yearsley, March 1, 2017

Less than a month before the first presidential election of December 1788, Francis Hopkinson published his Seven Songs for the Harpsichord or Forte Piano, dedicating the set “To His Excellency George Washington, Esquire.” Hopkinson was a Philadelphia lawyer, signer of the Declaration of Independence and a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. An amateur musician and poet, Hopkinson’s 1788 volume marries these talents in a series of disarming ditties—seven sentimental love songs ranging from the “mellow fruits” of “Fair Rosina” to the lilting and oxymoronically upbeat lament of the third number:

Beneath a weeping Willow’s shade,

She sat and sang alone,

Her Hand upon her Heart she laid

and plaintive was her moan.

For all its musical simplicity and concord, the seventh song strikes a dissonant note when we remember that it, like the others, it is dedicated to a Virginian plantation master:

My gen’rous heart disdains

The slave of Love to be,

I scorn his servile chains

And boast my liberty.

Surprisingly, given Hopkinson’s limited compositional range, this song’s form matches its content, not in reflecting the narrator’s desire to be released from love’s bondage but as an unwitting comment on, and perhaps critique of, the Peculiar Institution. Hopkinson sets the text as a rondo: like a runaway slave, the tune, accompanied by a galloping Alberti bass, is perpetually dragged back to its starting point.

As befitting the optimism of the newly-born nation, none of Hopkinson’s songs risks the gloom of a minor key. Washington liked the songs. The following year he appointed Hopkinson to the federal bench in Philadelphia.

The cloying tenderness of the texts and melodies might seem more appropriate for a harpsichord-playing girl than a hard-bitten general, soon to be elected president; indeed, Hopkinson claims that his intent is to “please young Performers.” Yet warrior kings have often been suckers for sentiment. Frederick the Great indulged in melancholic adagios on his flute even while he plunged Europe and the world into war in the middle of the eighteenth century. A hundred years later, during America’s greatest crisis, Abraham Lincoln was besotted by pathetic ballads, occasionally performing songs such as “Mary’s Dream” himself:

When Mary laid her down to sleep

Her thoughts on Sandy far at sea,

When soft and low a voice was heard Say:

‘Mary, weep no more for me.’

While bombing Cambodia and facing impeachment, Richard Nixon would distract himself with barbiturates and the mournful tones of his own Romantic piano noodlings in alternation with comforting renditions of the American popular songs of his youth. As a presidential candidate Bill Clinton unsheathed his saxophone and squawked out Heartbreak Hotel on the Arsenio Hall Show in staged attempt to atone for having signed off on the execution of the mentally unfit African-American Ricky Ray Rector in January of 1992. The blues and prayer would see Clinton through future scandals.

Whether Francis Hopkinson’s 1788 appeal to Washington’s softer side swayed any of the American Electors that year might be usefully investigated in some future Ph.D. dissertation on music and politics.

At the start of his one-page dedication to Washington, Hopkinson claims “personal Friendship” to the great man and trumpets his own “Hope, that the same Wisdom and Virtue which has so successfully conducted the Arms of the United States in Times of Invasion, War, and Tumult, will prove also the successful Patron of Arts and Sciences in Times of national Peace and Prosperity; and that the Glory of America will rise conspicuous under a Government designated by the Will, and an Administration founded in the Hearts of THE PEOPLE.”

Eager that his music not be judged too harshly by connoisseurs, Hopkinson seeks refuge in his amateur status, boasting nonetheless that he “cannot be refused the Credit of being the first Native of the United States who has produced a Musical Composition.” So full of ideas was Hopkinson that he added an eighth song after the title page to the collection had been engraved. Thus he can claim to be not only the first American composer, but also the inventor of the bonus track.

Brandishing the rhetorical tropes typical of prefaces from composers both high and low, Hopkinson concludes that “If this attempt should not be too severely treated, others may be encouraged to venture on a path yet untrodden in America, and the Arts in succession will take root and flourish among us.”

In his 1788 letter thanking Hopkinson for the dedication, Washington admitted that he could “neither sing one of the songs, nor raise a single note of any instrument.” But like his fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson, Washington procured a sumptuous harpsichord from London for the women of his family. Now in the Dewitt Wallace Museum in Williamsburg, that instrument is the one on which the Washingtons’ granddaughter Eleanor Park was forced to practice, according to her brother George Washington Parke Custis, “very long and very unwillingly … the poor girl would play and cry, and cry and play, for long hours, under the immediate eye of her grandmother [Martha], a rigid disciplinarian in all things.”

The vignette, rehearsed in various forms across ten subsequent generations of aspirational Americans trying to get their kids to learn the damn piano, brings to mind a short clip posted on London’s Daily Mail online edition in May of 2015 showing Ivanka Trump instructing her daughter Arabella at the keyboard. A finely manicured maternal finger, attached an Ivanka showing a lot more naked arm than the Mother of Our Country ever dared to do in the parlor at Mount Vernon, points to a chart on the music desk of the grand piano. The young girl, obedient and willing at least for the filmed moment, pokes out the notes with the index finger of her right and sings the names of the pitches. I’m not sure if it’s a touching moment or a chilling one—or both. It remains to be seen whether these thirty seconds of family life document the first steps of a lifelong love of music or the inculcation of the more basic Trumpian family values of knowing exactly when the cameras are rolling. Judging by the videos that the proud mother continues to post, progress at the piano is slow, though the latest installment shows Arabella deploying all five fingers of her right hand.

As for the girl’s grandfather, never has an incoming president been less musical or less interested in what was once known as culture. Even if the Bush commanders-in-chief—descendants of the Yale Whiffenpoof songster and U. S. Senator, Prescott Bush—were hardly patrons of the arts, they at least hosted concerts in their first weeks in the White House, with G. W. making early proclamations of a “Black Music Month.” To cheer himself up during the debacle of the Iraq War, G. W. also had one of his flunkies load up his iPod with a playlist of country classic and standby rock hits. Pretty dismal tastes, I’ll admit, but at least there was an infinitesimal something there.

Tweets are about as musical as Trump gets. He yawned and chatted during the fawning musical bombast of his inauguration. Most entertainers he has made overtures to have rebuffed him out of moral and commercial grounds. Serenading this creep would do bad things for most any brand.

Back in 1788 Hopkinson looked forward to peaceful land where the Arts came first. His hope was as naïve as the music he wrote. 

(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgyearsley@gmail.com.)

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