A frequent question is what musical instruments would have been played in early America. Information on musical instruments for any particular time or place has not been easy to come by. The old county histories, news articles, and travelers’ journals occasionally mentioned music, but some of their information should be taken with a grain of salt, because in their eagerness to prove how cultured their grandfathers had been, they romanticized the history of “Our Heroic Forefathers”. We seem to have always yearned for the uncomplicated, innocent and idyllic times of the past. For instance, writing in Pittsburgh in 1826, Samuel Jones remembered how in Ft. Pitt’s good old days, “The long winter evenings were passed by the humble villagers, at each others homes, with merry tale and song, or in simple games...they threaded the mazes of the dance, guided by the music of the violin, from which some good humoured rustic drew his Orphean sounds....”
Or we have the account of the military band stationed at Fort Washington, Cincinnati, in 1797: “their pleasure boats went up and down the Ohio River accompanied by the harmonies of Gluck and Haydn, mingled with the report of champagne bottles, transporting the guests from the wilds of Northwestern Territory into Lucullian feasts of the European aristocracy.” Modern scholars are discarding the champagne bottles floating down the Ohio, and the good humoured rustics’ violin music has become “scraping on shocking bad fiddles of their own making.” For a wonderful look at our changing uses of leisure time, by the way, I highly recommend the book Killing Time: Leisure and Culture in Southwestern Pennsylvania, 1800-1850, by Scott C. Martin. It contains lots of valuable information on taverns, entertainment, musical instruction and singing societies, Fourth of July celebrations, theater, drinking, temperance, Presbyterians, manure hauling frolics, even entertaining hangings.
Researchers now comb through books, journals, newspapers, playbills, commonplace books, and estate inventories for information on musical instruments and popular music. Let’s start with musical instruments in Colonial Maryland, from John Talley’s book Secular Music in Colonial Annapolis. Violin would seem to be the most common instrument, played by slaves and gentlemen alike. The paper contained several notices for runaway slaves, who often ran off with “a new fiddle, a Bonja, on both which he sometimes plays.” The inventories of estates in Anne Arundel County from 1746-59 list many violins and flutes, a trumpet, and a spinet. Occasionally, professional musicians gave performances on harpsichord, violin, and hautboy (oboe). The slaves weren’t the only ones absconding with instruments, as one visiting performer and instructor on “all Wind Instruments” stole his patron’s prize bassoon and headed for South Carolina.
The Tuesday Club, a gentlemen’s social club from 1745 to 1756, contained many of the musical “gentlemen” of colonial Annapolis, who performed and composed music with their friends. The club members played violins and viola da gamba, cello, flutes, French horn, organ and harpsichord, and maybe a bassoon. Another man played his hammer dulcimer as accompaniment to a cello, at one of the club meetings. Also mentioned were military drums, and “Eight musical bells rung by an electrified Phial,” which may have been some kind of glass harmonica. Except for banjos, no members of the lute and guitar family are positively identified in Annapolis during this early period. One gentleman of the early 18th century was said to have played “several instruments, such as the violin, Bass viol, flute, Hautboy and Bassoon, and some say he handled the Jews Harp with great dexterity; but the Bassoon excelled all his other performances, for by means of this solemn instrument, he used to draw many of the Rustics about his door, who flocked to the sound, as the stones and trees did of old to the sound of Orpheus’s Harp, with this difference, that, as the harp of the latter used to animate inanimate beings, so vice versa, the Bassoon of the first, used to inanimate beings, or convert human shapes into Sticks and stones.”
Hmmmm... there’s those rustics again, threading the mazes of the dance to the sound of the orphean bassoon. Ah, the Good Old Days.