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The Founding Father of American Song

Portrait of Francis Hopkinson by Robert Edge Pine (1785)
Portrait of Francis Hopkinson by Robert Edge Pine (1785)

By David Yearsly

This article originally appeared on CounterPunch

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Less than a month before the first presidential election of December 1788, Francis Hopkinson published his “Seven Songs for the Harpsichord or Forte Piano,” dedicating the set “To His Excellency George Washington, Esquire.”

Hopkinson was a Philadelphia lawyer, signer of the Declaration of Independence and a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. An amateur musician and poet, Hopkinson’s 1788 volume marries these talents in a series of disarming ditties — seven sentimental love songs ranging from the “mellow fruits” of “Fair Rosina” to the lilting lament of the third number, “Beneath a Weeping Willow’s Shade:”

Beneath a weeping Willow’s shade,
She sat and sang alone,
Her Hand upon her Heart she laid
and plaintive was her moan.

For all its musical simplicity and concord, the seventh song strikes a dissonant note when we remember that it, like the others, it is dedicated to a Virginian plantation master:

My gen’rous heart disdains
The slave of Love to be,
I scorn his servile chains
And boast my liberty.

Surprisingly, given Hopkinson’s limited compositional range, this song’s form matches its content, not in reflecting the narrator’s desire to be released from love’s bondage but as an unwitting comment on, and perhaps critique of, the Peculiar Institution.

Hopkinson sets the text as a rondo: like a runaway slave, the tune, accompanied by a repetitive galloping bass, is perpetually dragged back to its starting point.

As befitting the optimism of the new nation, none of Hopkinson’s songs risks the gloom of a minor key. George Washington liked the songs. The following year he appointed Hopkinson to the federal bench in Philadelphia.

Seven songs for the harpsichord or forte piano / the words and music composed by Francis Hopkinson.
“Seven Songs for the Harpsichord or Forte Piano: The Words and Music Composed by Francis Hopkinson” (1788).

The cloying tenderness of the texts and melodies might seem more appropriate for a harpsichord-playing girl than a hard-bitten general, soon to be elected president. Hopkinson claims that his intent is to “please young Performers.”

Yet warrior kings have often been suckers for sentiment. Frederick the Great indulged in melancholic adagios on his flute even while he plunged Europe and the world into war in the middle of the eighteenth century. A hundred years later, during America’s Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was besotted by ballads, occasionally performing songs such as the Scottish classic, “Mary’s Dream:”

When Mary laid her down to sleep
Her thoughts on Sandy far at sea,
When soft and low a voice was heard Say:
‘Mary, weep no more for me.’

While bombing Cambodia and facing impeachment, Richard Nixon would distract himself with barbiturates and the mournful tones of his own Romantic piano noodlings in alternation with comforting renditions of the American popular songs of his youth.

As a presidential candidate, Bill Clinton unsheathed his saxophone and squawked out “Heartbreak Hotel” on the Arsenio Hall Show in a staged attempt to atone for having signed off on the execution of the mentally unfit African American Ricky Ray Rector in January of 1992. The blues and prayer would see Clinton through his many scandals.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “Bill Clinton’s The Pres Blows and the Hilarious Response to a Legendary Record.”

Whether Francis Hopkinson’s 1788 appeal to Washington’s softer side swayed any of the American Electors that year might be usefully investigated in some future Ph.D. dissertation on music and politics.

At the start of his one-page dedication to Washington, Hopkinson claims “personal Friendship” to the great man and trumpets his own: “Hope, that the same Wisdom and Virtue which has so successfully conducted the Arms of the United States in Times of Invasion, War, and Tumult, will prove also the successful Patron of Arts and Sciences in Times of national Peace and Prosperity; and that the Glory of America will rise conspicuous under a Government designated by the Will, and an Administration founded in the Hearts of THE PEOPLE.”

Eager that his music not be judged too harshly by connoisseurs, Hopkinson seeks refuge in his amateur status, boasting nonetheless that he “cannot be refused the Credit of being the first Native of the United States who has produced a Musical Composition.” So full of ideas was Hopkinson that he added an eighth song after the title page to the collection had been engraved.

Thus, he can claim to be not only the first American composer, but also the inventor of the bonus track.

Brandishing the rhetorical tropes typical of prefaces by composers both high and low, Hopkinson concludes that “If this attempt should not be too severely treated, others may be encouraged to venture on a path yet untrodden in America, and the Arts in succession will take root and flourish among us.”

In his 1788 letter thanking Hopkinson for the dedication, Washington admitted that he could “neither sing one of the songs, nor raise a single note of any instrument.” But like his fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson, Washington procured a sumptuous harpsichord from London for the women of his family.

Now in the Dewitt Wallace Museum in Williamsburg, that instrument is the one on which the Washingtons’ granddaughter Eleanor Park was forced to practice, according to her brother George Washington Parke Custis, “very long and very unwillingly… the poor girl would play and cry, and cry and play, for long hours, under the immediate eye of her grandmother [Martha], a rigid disciplinarian in all things.”

The vignette, rehearsed in various forms across subsequent generations of aspirational Americans trying to get their kids to learn how to play the piano, brings to mind Ivanka Trump instructing her daughter Arabella at the keyboard and spreading the happy domestic scene over YouTube in during the presidential campaign of 2015.

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As for the girl’s grandfather, never has an incoming president been less musical. Even if the Bush commanders-in-chief — descendants of the Yale Whiffenpoof songster and U. S. Senator, Prescott Bush — were hardly patrons of the arts, they at least hosted concerts in their first weeks in the White House, with G. W. Bush making early proclamations of a “Black Music Month” in 2001.

The Barack Obama White House hummed with concerts from classical to soul to pop, but the East Room became a no-fly zone for music under Trump. He even yawned and chatted during the fawning musical bombast of his inauguration.

Back in 1788, Hopkinson looked forward to peaceful land where the Arts came first. His hope was as naïve as the music he wrote.

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David Yearsly is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at dgyears[email protected].

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