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Early American Sacred Music at the Library of Congress

Sacred music has been a vibrant part of American culture from the earliest sacred oral traditions of indigenous peoples through the written traditions of the first European colonists. This guide focuses on American sacred music published before 1820.

Introduction

William Billings. New England Psalm Singer. Library of Congress Music Division.

With the settlement of the Plymouth, Massachusetts colony in 1620, sacred music played an important role in helping to define the cultural identity of the region of the New World that would become the United States.

The Ainsworth Psalter (musical settings of the Psalms of David translated into English) was brought by the Pilgrims from Europe for use in their religious services. Unsatisfied with the antiquated language of the Ainsworth Psalter, it was only a few decades later that a new version was published titled The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre (1640). This was the first book published in the colonies and was commonly known as the "Bay Psalm Book" because it was published by Stephen Day of Cambridge, Massachusetts, then known as the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The printed music in the Bay Psalm Book, which did not appear until the ninth edition (1698), was of European origin. It was not until the publication of William Billings's New England Psalm Singer in 1770, the first publication consisting of sacred music composed entirely by a native-born American, that the European hymn tradition was successfully transformed and assimilated into uniquely American music.

Introductory text taken from the essay "Ritual and Worship" written for "The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America."