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Using Mount Vernon to Teach with Music

The Washington family loved music. At home, Martha Washington, as well as her children and grandchildren, all studied music. Most notably, the Washingtons’ granddaughter, Eleanore “Nelly” Custis was accomplished on the harpsichord. During his military career, George Washington valued the music of the fife and drums and as president music served him in both ceremonial and honorific ways, such as with the tune "Hail Columbia." Today, life at George Washington’s Mount Vernon comes alive with music through live performances, audio and video recordings, investigation of objects, and analysis of lyrics and music style. Each of these techniques can be “instrumental” in connecting students in your classroom to life in the 18th century.

Teaching with Music Tips:

Analyzing 18th-century lyrics can be accomplished using a similar approach to more traditional 18th-century texts. When accompanied by an analysis of melody and musical style, students can increase their depth of understanding. The historical context and symbolic significance of tunes like “Yankee Doodle” or “British Grenadiers” can help inform students if the song was written as an insult (the former) or an honor (the latter).

Lyricists in the 18th century often parodied existing tunes and wrote new, timely lyrics to comment on contemporary events. Identifying if the lyrics were religious, popular, or ceremonial can help students understand the larger context of changing attitudes during a time period. Parodies of Yankee Doodle highlight different perspectives and moments of the American Revolution. Sometimes a parody was re-parodied and a musical dialogue played out via newspapers printing lyrics. This was the case between patriots and loyalists with “The Liberty Song”.

Combining a musical instrument, contemporary recordings, and historic accounts left by those who listened to the music allows students to use rich, multi-sensory methods of inquiry. Music, accompanied by dance, not only allows students to learn through movement, but also helps teach about 18th-century class and gender distinctions. Different dance styles and traditions raise interesting questions about the impact of democracy on class hierarchy in the Revolutionary and early Republic eras.

Many 18th-century music documents from the American continent were written without music notation, as melodies were familiar and notation was difficult for printers to produce. The few printers who were equipped with musical type, mainly those living in Boston and Philadelphia, tended to focus on printing sacred music. Secular music, such as parodies of familiar tunes, were most often printed as text-only broadsides.

Music at Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon uses musical performances by fife and drum corps to bring the military action of the Revolutionary War to life. In Washington’s own words (General Orders, June 4, 1777): “Nothing is more agreeable, and ornamental, than good music…every officer, for the credit of his corps, should take care to provide it.”

George and Martha Washington ensured music was part of Mount Vernon by purchasing instruments and lessons for the children that grew up there. We have preserved the family harpsichord often associated with Martha’s Granddaughter Nelly, and are making a playable replica of the instrument.  Music was a common form of evening entertainment at Mount Vernon according to the recollections of guests over the years. Among the upper class, music had proscribed gender roles which the Washingtons abided by. They purchased two keyboard instruments as well as an English guitar for Martha’s daughter and granddaughter, while a violin and German flute were provided for Martha’s son. 

Many songs were written to honor George Washington during his life; singing about his accomplishments was akin to praising the young United States since his biography was so entwined with the forming of the new nation. It is through song that we see George Washington most vividly as a symbol of the new nation. “He Comes, A Hero Comes” is a great example of a piece of music which combines his life with images of freedom and America.

The documentary record of music created by enslaved individuals on plantations throughout the 18th century is small. Most of what we know comes from records kept by visitors to other plantations and descriptions of runaways. These sources show that many enslaved individuals were skilled musicians and that music played a key part of their lives. The environment and mix of cultures that produced music on other plantation also existed at Mount Vernon. Documented songs such as “Hoe Emma Hoe” were not recorded until the 19th century, but may date back to Washington's time.