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. 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 come 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.
Within the Protestant Christian tradition, American sacred music developed, and continues to develop, in a variety of directions as diverse ethnic groups add their voices to the musical landscape of the United States. In the eighteenth century, the Moravian Church, a renewed branch of the Pre-Reformation Brethren of Unity which had philosophical grounding in the work of fifteenth-century Czech priest Jan Hus, established major settlements in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in 1741 and in Salem, North Carolina in 1766 (present day Winston-Salem). Their music was well-grounded in the grand sacred tradition of the European Baroque period and included instrumental ensembles, most famously the trombone choir, to accompany their services which were spoken and sung in both German and English. As early as 1742, the congregation in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania had a wide variety of stringed and wind instruments as well as an organ and other keyboard instruments just a few years later. The extensive use of musical instruments in Moravian culture was certainly an impetus for Pennsylvania-born Moravian luthier John Antes to make what is probably the first violin to be constructed in the United States in 1759. The diversity of music within the Moravian community led to developments in both sacred and secular music independent of the hymn tradition of New England composers such as William Billings. For example, in addition to his sacred vocal music, Moravian composer Johann Friedrich Peter of Salem, North Carolina, wrote a set of string quintets in 1789 which are the earliest known examples of secular chamber music written in the United States. The Moravians represent just one of many possible examples of how music written for worship and praise can fulfill not only a sacred function, but can also change the cultural direction of society at large.
The United States continued to be a haven for persecuted religious groups long after the Puritans arrived in Massachusetts Bay. An example are the Russian Molokans, a Christian denomination that fled Russia to the United States and elsewhere during the early twentieth century. Rarely recorded, the congregation of the Russian Molokan Church of Potrero Hill, San Francisco, California allowed ethnomusicologist Sidney Robertson Cowell to document their services in 1938. Recordings of the congregation singing scripture in Russian provide examples of a style of Christian singing that was once common. The ancient practice of singing of scripture by whole congregations was revived during the Protestant Reformation, using translations into the common language of the people. (Read more about Russian Molokan immigrants in "Russian American Songs.")
A style of singing psalms and hymns called "shape-note singing" emerged in the southern United States in the early nineteenth century. Related to congregational singing of New England, this style developed features of its own. An article, "Shape-note Singing" is available in this presentation along with a video of a lecture on the topic by David Warren Steel.
African Americans, who began establishing their own churches in the Northeast in the eighteenth century, contributed not only to the music of their own congregations, but to that of Christian Protestants throughout the country. The spirituals and "camp meeting songs" that had been part of the spirituality of slavery days developed into Gospel style singing after emancipation. African American Gospel became the influence for the development of Gospel music used among other ethnic groups, as well as inspiring popular music forms. Essays on African American spirituals and African American Gospel are available in this presentation.
The earliest Catholic settlers in North America were the Spanish settlers of Puerto Rico, Florida, southern California, Texas, northern New Mexico, and southern Colorado. They brought with them many of the religious song traditions of Spain of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. These groups were somewhat isolated from Spain, relying on occasional travel of priests to and from Europe for news from the old world. As territories were lost by Spain in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the priests in the former colonies were recalled and non-Catholic settlers began moving in, and some of the Spanish settlers moved to Mexico or returned to Spain.
Puerto Rico remained part of Spain and continued to remain strongly Catholic even after it became a possession of the United States in 1898. This created further isolation for the land-locked settlements in what is now New Mexico and Colorado. The people there preserved their religious traditions as best they could using plays and pageants to mark religious holidays. The result, in terms of music and song, was that this isolation preserved some of the oldest songs of the Spanish settlers.
Folklorist Juan B. Rael documented songs of the early pageant plays and holidays in New Mexico and Colorado in 1940, seeking out older singers who remembered the songs they had learned before the advent of radio and television. For example, this is a field recording of "María busca a Jesús," in which Mary looks for the lost child Jesus, sung by Ricardo Archuleta.
Spanish-language religious expression is now found throughout the United States, preserved by the many ethnic groups that descended from the Spanish colonies of North and South America and brought by immigrants of many countries. Examples from several of these groups may be found in this presentation.
Jewish settlers came to North America beginning in the Colonial period, beginning with Sephardic Jews who came with Dutch settlers in New York. But the largest wave of Jewish immigration was during the late nineteenth century as Eastern European Jews fled persecution and sought better economic opportunities. As it happened, this wave of immigration brought to the United States some of the most famous cantors of Europe, who performed, taught, and composed sacred songs for synagogues. These included Mordechai Hershman, Josef "Yossele" Rosenblatt, Shloimele Rothstein, and Aryeh Leib Rutman, who made recordings on Victor records, some of which are available in this presentation. They toured the United States, made recordings, and composed, so that their styles of cantorial music became profoundly influential throughout the country.
The style of cantorial singing that was held in the highest regard at the time required a wide vocal range and the ability to sing with great emotion. Before the advent of radio and sound recordings, the opportunity to hear a cantor perform was a source of entertainment as well as religious experience. When the new technologies became available, many cantors took advantage of them. Josef Rosenblatt, rather famously, appeared in the first "talking picture," The Jazz Singer (1927), as himself. In this selection, Josef Rosenblatt sings a song that he composed, "T'ka b'shofar" (Let the trumpet be blown for our freedom), in 1921.
The late eighteenth century brought a modernization of attitudes about women in performance, with a greater freedom for women to perform on the stage, in Yiddish theater for example, and to perform religious songs outside the home and in public settings. Although women could not become cantors until the middle to late twentieth century, in the early twentieth century it was possible for them to perform cantorial songs in some public contexts. For example, this recording of Joseph Feldman and Mildred Manne performing "Adam yesodo me-afar" (Man is made of clay), is an example of a cantorial piece sung as a male-female duet in 1925.
Buddhism is the most common religion in the United States after Christian, Jewish, and non-affiliated groups. It is represented by several denominations that include immigrants from Buddhist countries and Americans have converted to the faith and subsequent generations. Some forms of Buddhism focus on silent meditation, but many use chants as a way of preparing the mind for meditation, often drawn from scripture. There are also songs for rituals and religious holidays, such as the celebration of the Buddha's birthday in the spring. The style of Buddhist singing that may be most familiar to Americans is Tibetan chanting, which includes a distinctive style of throat singing by trained singers who can produce more than one pitch simultaneously. 
Today Muslims in the United States include people from many countries, denominations, and language groups. It is not unusual for Muslims of diverse backgrounds to share the same Mosque. Chanting scriptural passages in the original Arabic is a practice that is shared across the Muslim world. In addition to theological reasons for using the original language, this practice allows for Muslims who speak many languages to worship together. There are many other forms of musical expression that vary both among ethnic groups and denominations. Most of the Muslims who arrived in what is now the United States in colonial times were African slaves. Although efforts to convert slaves to Christianity were largely successful, knowledge of this past did inspire Islamic movements among African Americans in the twentieth century. About one quarter of American Muslims today are African American. Muslims, mainly from the Ottoman Empire came to the United States with the wave of immigration from Eastern Europe and the Middle East in the mid- nineteenth century through World War I. Immigration of Muslims from many other parts of the world to the United States greatly increased in the late twentieth century. Available in this presentation is a concert by the Sama Ensemble, most of whom are Persian Americans, performing Sufi Muslim chants and songs in Persian Language (Farsi). In Sufi religious practice, chants, drumming, and dance are used to seek direct experience of God.
For American Indians, Native Alaskans, and Hawaiians before colonization, song and dance were an essential part of religious expression. Song and dance were used in ceremonies, such as marking the seasons of the year, coming of age, death, and healing from illness. Some sacred songs were public and some private, appropriate for members of only one particular group to hear. An example of a part of a creation cycle of the Menominee, "Manabus tells ducks to shut their eyes," sung by Louis Pigeon, was recorded by Francis Densmore in 1925.
In an attempt to "civilize" Indian tribes, President Ulysses Grant instituted a "Peace Policy" in the late 1860s that included an effort to Christianize Indians. This most profoundly influenced the Indians in the "Indian Territory" of present day Oklahoma. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, government-supported Christian missionaries and the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs established boarding schools to educate American Indian and Native Alaskan children in a setting that separated the children from their culture. In 1904 the United States banned the Sun Dance, an important ritual of the tribes of the western plains. In 1921 the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs extended this further, calling for the ban of the Sun Dance "and all similar dances."
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ethnographers made sound recordings of the songs and stories of various tribes believing that these government policies, education programs, and Christian conversion efforts would soon destroy all trace of America's indigenous cultures. Examples of some of these recordings are available in this presentation. The actual result of conversion attempts was the development of religions that blended the beliefs of the various tribes with Christianity. There was also resistance to conversion and the practice of religious customs in secret. The Seminole, even today, retreat to find privacy in the Everglades to hold their Green Corn dance in the late spring. Some of the songs from this ceremony, documented in 1940, are available in this presentation, including this "Hunting song," sung by John Josh, Richard Osceola, Robert Oceola, and Barfield Johns.
As Europeans established trade with Hawai'i, the Hawaiian people were involved in their own religious reforms, as King Kamehameha I attempted to unite the islands and simplify the complex beliefs that varied from island to island. A year after the death of Kamehameha I, in 1819, Christian missionaries arrived, taking advantage of the changing religious ideas to promote their own faiths. In 1830, the regent Queen Ka'ahumanu, who had converted to Protestant Christianity, was persuaded by missionaries to ban the hula. The hula and its accompanying traditions were largely practiced in secret for a time. Hawaiian Christians developed their own traditions, incorporating many native customs into their practice in order to retain their Hawaiian identity along with their faith.
In 1978 the United States passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, prohibiting bans or interference with the religions of indigenous peoples. Today there is a cultural revitalization of American Indian, Native Alaskan, and Hawaiian customs and language, partly supported by the establishment of native-run schools and colleges. Concerts at the Library of Congress included in this presentation demonstrate the current revival of ceremonial dance and song, such as the Dineh Tah Dancers (Navajo), Wayne Newell and Blanch Sockabasin --Traditional Passamaquoddy Music from Maine, and the Hawaiian ensemble Unukupukupu Halau Hula.
As the population of the United States grows and becomes more diverse, the breadth of sacred music in this country continues to develop. The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 ended the restrictions on immigration that favored Western Europeans. This allowed people of many ethnic and religious groups to enter the United States who would have found it difficult to immigrate under earlier policies. The variety and scope of American music expressing spirituality is growing more diverse as a result. The largest wave of Muslim immigrants came to the United States after 1965, for example, coming from many countries and representing many different denominations. Some examples of sacred music of immigrants of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have been performed at the Library of Congress and are available as webcasts, such as Sreevidhya Chandramouli performing South Indian Hindu music and song and the griot or djeli Bala Kouyate performing Malian music and song.
As scholars and musicians uncover forgotten traditions and new technologies foster the development of increasingly diverse communities, music of worship and praise remains the "tie that binds" likeminded people together.
- 1. The Lao Natasinh Dance Troupe of Iowa concert at the Library of Congress is available in this presentation. Although there are songs in the webcast, the pieces that the group identifies as Buddhist are music and dance without song. [back to article]