Unlike the English, Spanish, French and Dutch, the Germans never came to the Americas as explorers or as large sponsored companies to exploit the natural resources. Perhaps even more than the Puritans, the first German immigrants came to flee religious persecution in their homeland. William Penn traveled throughout Germany in 1682 inviting members of persecuted sects to come to Philadelphia, where they could worship freely. Many Lutheran, Menonite, and other Protestant sects had endured a lifetime of struggle during the Thirty Years War (1619-1648). The Rhenish Palatinate area of Germany was once again ravaged by war when Louis XIV sent French troops to the area during the War of the Grand Alliance (1689-1697). The Palatine area had been settled by people from Germany, Holland, and Switzerland who shared a common view on religion and sought the comfort and support of the like-minded population. Many of these people, tired of war and persecution, accepted William Penn’s invitation to leave their war-torn farms and villages for the unknown, but safe, farmlands of Pennsylvania. Many others fled to England, only to be sent to New York a few years later as ship builders for the Royal Navy.
Most of the first German immigrants settled along the border of Pennsylvania and Maryland (this border was made famous in 1760, when it was surveyed by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon in order to settle a dispute between the colonies.) By the 1720s, over two thousand German immigrants arrived on American shores annually. By the time of the American Revolution there were well over 100,000 German immigrants living between New York and Georgia. In fact, German immigrants made up the largest group of non-English speaking people in America. In the early years of the United States, Philadelphia, not Boston or New York, was the center of culture. New England was still mostly under the control of strict Puritan beliefs, including a disdain for music. The first really large concert on American soil took place at the Reformed German Church on Race Street in Philadelphia on May 4th, 1786. The concert featured over 250 vocal and 50 instrumental performers of both German and English decent.
During the years leading up to the Civil War, the German song style known as lied
was introduced to enthusiastic audiences by the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind. American composers were so taken by Lind, many traveled to Germany to study music and returned with fresh ideas for an “American” music.
Perhaps the longest lasting, and most significant contribution to American music came from the most conflicting of sources. If the Puritans of New England were seen as restrictive in their allowance of music, the Quakers were even stricter in their belief that music encouraged thoughtlessness and frivolity. The German and Dutch immigrants (predominantly Lutheran) held a much different view of music. The church encouraged the writing and singing of hymns. Music played an important part of the Lutheran faith, as the concert on Race Street attests.
No mention of German church music in early America would be complete without mentioning shape-note
singing, also called sacred harp
singing. The “do-re-me-fa-so-la-ti-do” that most of us learned in grade school was developed as an aid to hymn singing, without the need to read musical notation. Each note has a unique shape and accompanying sound. It is believed that the basis of the system was developed in Philadelphia around 1790.
Large portions of North and South Carolina, as well as Georgia, were settled by German immigrants. Most notable were the Moravians that established the Wachovia Settlement in North Carolina. Music was an essential part of the religious beliefs of the Moravians, who included musical literacy as an essential part of education. Moravian children were taught to compose and play music as a normal part of their upbringing. There are accounts of a twenty piece chamber orchestra accompanying Christmas Eve services as early as 1756. But it was the brass bands that the Moravians were really known for. Not restricted by religious beliefs, the Moravians also enjoyed secular music and often played the works of European composers at social gatherings just for entertainment.
During the first wave of westward expansion, the German, Dutch, English, Scots-Irish, and French traveled the Buffalo Trail from Pennsylvania, along the ridgelines of the Appalachian Mountains to Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. Although no one knows the origin of the Appalachian (or lap) dulcimer, some speculate that it was derived from the German zither. One of my favorite instruments, the Autoharp, is a direct descendant of the zither, it’s inventor calling it a “chorded zither.”
During the 1800s and the expansion West, many immigrants from Eastern Europe, including Poland, Germany, and Switzerland headed to the upper Mid-west. Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay, Calgary, and Milwaukee all have large populations of people raised on polka
(you knew I’d get there sooner or later.) Polka has a strong, loyal following in America, especially in the cities along the shores of the Great Lakes. The polka’s origins are probably from Poland or Bohemia (both claim credit) sometime around 1830. The dance, and it’s accompanying, up-beat music swept across Eastern Europe and with the immigrants, to the United States. While the polka remains popular along the Great Lakes, its biggest contribution to American music came from Central Texas, of all places.
Thousands of German, Czech, and Polish immigrants entered the American shores at Galveston, Texas during the mid to late 1800s. The new arrivals settled throughout Texas, but concentrated somewhat by nationality. The Czech’s settled in the area between Houston and Dallas, the Poles in the lands northwest of Houston, and the Germans around the towns of Fredericksburg and New Braunfels, in Central Texas. The beer drinkers amongst you know this area as the home of the Barvarian-style Shiner Brewery. Traditional polka is still very popular in Texas, but its influence on the music of its neighbors had a most profound effect. The accordion and many of the elements of polka
found their way into the music of the Cajuns of Louisiana and the Mexican music of the border region. As the popularity of string bands was being replaced by the jazzier sounds of the Big Bands, Texans combined the two, threw some polka
into the mix, and western swing
Let’s not forget that other important contribution by German immigrants to America... BEER!
Joe Patek's Orchestra - Krasna Amerika.mp3
Czech polka. The title translates as "Beautiful America."
Louise Massey & The Westerners - Squeeze Box Polka.mp3 Don Reno & Red Smiley and the Tennessee Cut-Ups - Beer Barrel Polka.mp3
The polka even found its way to the mountains!
Before you ask, yes, I did consider posting Flatt & Scruggs "Polka on the Banjo", but everyone's got that one.
Adolph Hofner - Happy Go Lucky Polka.mp3
Some early western swing, complete with Bob Wills-like "Ah-Ha"s.