Living History & Reenactment Music

Musical Rambles Through History © by Sara L. Johnson

Young Thomas Jefferson's Music

Helen Cripe's book Thomas Jefferson and Music, University Press of Virginia (1974) provides an interesting view of music in Colonial America, particularly amongst gentlemen amateur musicians such as Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Francis Hopkinson and Gov. Fauquier at Williamsburg.

18th century Americans supported a wide range of music, importing musicians from England, Germany, Italy and France. They could purchase good musical instruments, printed music, music paper, music ruling pens, and strings. Secular music was more important at the time than sacred music, and ballad operas from England, public concerts and dancing assemblies were springing up everywhere. Concerts were held in taverns, halls, gardens, churches, theaters, often by subscription. When enough tickets had been sold, the concert or concert series was then held, or a concert might be given as a benefit. The Virginia Gazette had many notices for fiddling and singing contests, and as early as the 1730s, fiddling contests were awarding good "Cremona" violins as prizes. Entrants were also told that they would all be provided with "Liquor sufficient to clear their wind-Pipes..."

Professional musicians were sometimes well supported, but usually had to supplement their incomes. Besides teaching vocal or instrumental music, they often taught dancing and fencing, and in rural areas, rode circuit to the important families, commissioned to stay with them a certain amount of time and teach music to the children. In cities, they also played in concerts and theatrical productions, composed, and sometimes did music printing and publishing. Other "Professors of Musick" also did a little barbering, accounting, drew up legal papers, or like Peter Pelham of Williamsburg, held a variety of civil service posts, including keeper of the Public Gaol.

Professional musicians like Pelham were on good social and professional terms with the best society, but were still considered on a social level with shopkeepers and skilled craftsmen. Gentlemen amateur musicians performed music in public but never as paid performers. Instead, they could appear in concerts or theater orchestras as "patrons", helping out their professor. In turn, professional musicians did not provide music for dances and entertainments - that work belonged to servants. It seems to have been very common for slaves to play for dances. Many black slaves and white indentured servants were accomplished musicians, and ads seeking servants or slaves often mentioned besides the usual qualifications that they wanted someone skilled on particular instruments. Also, ads for runaways often mentioned what instrument they could play.

The violin was the most popular instrument in Jefferson's youth, and he learned at an early age, and could read music. By the age of 14, he was copying his father's favorite country fiddle tunes into notebooks, and had been taught to dance. His sister Jane was also musical, and his brother Randolph, twelve years younger, took violin lessons. However, Randolph was not scholarly, married "a Jade of genuine bottom", and turned from violin lessons to country fiddling, as he "used to come out among the black people, play the fiddle and dance half the night." (Every president must have an embarrasing younger brother lurking in the wings.)

Jefferson, as a young law student, participated in the musical life of Williamsburg. He played with Gov. Fauquier and a few other amateurs in their weekly concerts. He bought a kit, a small violin also known as the dancing master's pocket fiddle, made a case for it that fit on his saddle, and took it everywhere. From his account books, we know that he bought many tickets for theatrical performances, which all involved music. It was the custom at the time to insert musical and dance interludes between the acts of the play. An example of a typical program, which Jefferson may have attended, was the play A Trip to the Jubilee. After the first act, there was a "country boy monologue"; a dance after the second act; a cantata after the third act, a minuet within the fifth act, a hornpipe after the play, followed by a farce, The Miller of Mansfield. Another production included a man with his head on one chair, feet on another, who had a "300 weight" rock broken on his chest with a sledgehammer. Lasting through a performance seemed to require copious quantities of punch, available between the acts, with some indication that audience behavior went steadily downhill as the punch flowed. One certainly got one's money's worth of entertainment in an evening.