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We know that the delicate sounds of Nelly’s harpsichord echoed through the halls of Mount Vernon, but what other music was played at the time elsewhere?

By David Hildebrand


As the generations unfolded after that first settlement at Jamestown took hold, colonial Virginians maintained ties to Great Britain that were political, economic, and especially, cultural. For the majority, meaning the struggling white planters and tradesmen and the throngs of the enslaved, there was little cultural self-awareness. But for the elite families with names such as Lee, Jefferson, Custis, and Washington, following up-to-date English fashion was quite conscious, and it mattered tremendously. In this sense, music was especially emblematic.

One of the many pages of music hand-copied by Nelly Custis. (MVLA)
One of the many pages of music hand-copied by Nelly Custis. (MVLA)

By the mid-18th century, the social esteem associated with music-making had become especially exaggerated among the wealthier southern British colonists. Puritan New Englanders danced and played music modestly and in private, for personal enrichment and diversion. But, born in the tobacco colony of Virginia, Martha and her children and grandchildren inherited higher social expectations. Among them were bestowed a violin, flute, English guittar, pianoforte, spinet, and harpsichord. Lessons upon these fine instruments led to performances, mostly at home, then, increasingly, for strangers and dignitaries. Such playing put the “feather in the cap,” as it were, cementing elite culture and fine upbringing.

What sort of music did Martha, Jacky, Patsy, and Nell play? (George, by his own admission, was unmusical.) For one thing, it depended upon gender, according to prevailing elite musical fashion. The young boy learned violin and flute, whereas the girls studied keyboard instruments and guittar. Such expectations imposed a burden upon these young players. George Washington Parke Custis noted of Nelly: “The poor girl would play and cry, and cry and play, for long hours, under the immediate eye of her grandmother, a rigid disciplinarian in all things.”

Music heard at Mount Vernon and in the Washingtons’ presidential homes was somewhat representative of that heard elsewhere throughout early America. The family music library contained certain types of music in abundance. Songs from the theater dominate Martha’s lengthy music book, The Bull-Finch (1757), and likewise, featured in much of Nelly’s collected sheet music and manuscripts—which also included hymns and psalm tunes. Nationalistic and patriotic music abounded; Nelly copied by hand the newly composed lyrics to “Hail, Columbia” when they first circulated as set to “The President’s March,” a very popular tune composed for her adopted grandfather’s first inaugural. Elite amateurs also played dance tunes, sometimes to accompany minuets or country dances, but at other times just because this music was cheerful and beloved.

Based upon the sheer quantity of difficult music pieces Nelly Custis owned, and many surviving comments in praise of her playing, it appears her hard work practicing was rewarded by a high level of musicianship. (MVLA)

Wider World

But just as the Virginia elite were isolated from most of the surrounding population in their daily lives, their musical world was limited and rarified. The poorer sorts typically learned to play whatever instruments were available informally, without the benefit of lessons. The violin—referred to as a fiddle when played to accompany dancing—was cheap and easy to come by. The historical record abounds with references to fiddlers and fiddling at county fairs, impromptu dances, barbecues, and other gatherings of the lower classes.

The early spirituals and work songs of the enslaved, while certainly not heard in the music room of Mount Vernon or other great houses, were certainly present on the estate. African-based music resounded within earshot as the General toured his fields and was undoubtedly hummed and softly sung by the many craftsmen and house workers in and around the Mansion. It was the soundtrack of life among the stevedores, ferrymen, coachmen, and other tradesmen Washington encountered during his extensive travels. In subsequent centuries, Americans have come to know the breadth of African-influenced musical genres, such as minstrelsy, spirituals, ragtime, gospel, blues, jazz, rock, reggae, and rap. But gentlemen of Washington’s day merely eavesdropped on worksongs and observed dancers circling to rudimentary homemade drums, banjos, and cheap fiddles making strange and unfamiliar sounds.

Explore the Music of Mount Vernon's Enslaved


When the Washington family worshiped at Pohick Church, it was to a specifically Anglican focus on the devout singing of psalms set to ancient, simple tunes with or without organ accompaniment. Elsewhere in America, Moravians performed complex, orchestrated anthems in their settlements, so different from the Catholic chanting in Latin in the Spanish and French settled regions ranging from modern-day California and Texas to Florida and the Great Lakes region. During Nelly’s long lifetime also came to flourish vigorous new hymns inspired by the Wesley brothers, and excited, evangelical spirituals shouted by thousands—black and white—attending outdoor summer camp meetings. And although Nelly probably never heard it, a genre of sacred music published in shape notes, known better now as “Sacred Harp” music, resounded through America’s backwoods.

"African-based music resounded within earshot as the General toured his fields and was undoubtedly hummed and softly sung by the many craftsmen and house workers in and around the Mansion."

As an extremely well-traveled man, George Washington overheard types of music rarely encountered by the women in his family, including the protest songs sung under liberty trees, such as John Dickinson’s “Liberty Song” and the folksy “A Taxing We Shall Go.” Ballad singers on the street corners of larger cities like New York and Philadelphia sang of hangings, shipwrecks, heroes, battles, and other spicy things. They sold printed broadside copies of these ballads, some of which survive, but certainly not in the music libraries of Martha or Nelly. On campaigns during the Revolutionary War, the sounds of the fifes and drums, as well as those of military “bands of musick,” became familiar to General Washington, and to Martha, after she joined him at winter quarters. She may or may not have witnessed soldiers or sailors drinking and dancing their competitive jigs and hornpipes, being dance forms only appropriate further down the social ladder.

Through Washington’s lifetime, the nature of music in America changed considerably. Before and during the Revolution, it was performed mostly on an amateur or, at best, quasi-professional basis. Yes, there were a few itinerant professional musicians who scraped by through teaching and performing, mostly for dances and at theaters—a Mr. Stadler of that ilk visited Mount Vernon more than once. But there were neither music schools nor conservatories. Very few musical instruments were made in the New World, and the publishing and printing of music was limited to a few prolific entrepreneurs in New England and Philadelphia, but even those were entirely focused on church music, a genre less relevant to the colonial South. Most printed music and instruments were imported from or through Great Britain.

A Growing Scene

But after the Treaty of Paris, and into the mid-to-late-1780s, trained professional musicians arrived in America’s eastern seaboard cities and commenced commercial operations in printing, publishing, teaching, composing, and promoting stage-works and concerts in several new, large, urban theaters. It was one of these influential immigrant professionals, Alexander Reinagle (1756–1809), who became Nelly’s keyboard teacher when the presidential family resided in New York and, later, Philadelphia. There were, of course, changes in musical styles over time, some of which are as distinct as the difference between a short classic symphony by Haydn and the bombastic late string quartets of Beethoven. In the world of popular music, the rich, more complex rhythms of 17th- and 18th-century ballads and dance tunes gave way to simpler, if not “dumbed down” compositions of English and American parlor music, even as the 19th century was dawning.

It may be of interest to learn how musicologists come to know these things, especially about something as ephemeral as the long-expired vibrations of music being made. Conventional primary documents, such as church records, estate inventories, letters, journals, and diaries, contain important factual details concerning who played what types of music, where, and when. Iconography, both formal paintings and rough sketches and even cartoons, provides visual evidence of performance situations, sometimes depicting circumstances such as a county fair or outdoor dance upon the green.

Perhaps surprisingly, we can thank the printers of early American newspapers for preserving important details concerning who bought, sold, and repaired instruments, as well as who taught people to play them. These newspapers include detailed programs for concerts and theatrical presentations, as well as descriptions of military musicians and the instruments they used. They also inform us about other instruments that were in use beyond the harpsichord, so exclusive to the wealthy, and what was played upon these instruments. Runaway slave advertisements provide much of what is known of the musical activities of the most downtrodden—these ads reference the many banjos, drums, and crude flutes that were fashioned from raw materials. Runaway African Americans who could play the violin, French horn, and other more formal instruments sometimes had done so at their masters’ dances, as well as at their own social gatherings. Among the middling ranks of white society were itinerant dulcimer players, teachers of the bassoon and flute, dance instructors who also taught singing, and so forth. These and many more facts survive on paper, showing just how very rich was this musical world of 18th-century America.

A performer, composer, teacher, arranger, publisher, and theater manager, Reinagle pursued a variety of music-related activities to compete in the new nation's fledgling music business. No doubt being the teacher of the president's adopted granddaughter Nelly Custis boosted his career.

Used in many regions of the world, the jaw harp was a common instrument among the enslaved at Mount Vernon and other plantations. Musicians placed the rounded end of the harp at the front of their mouths and used a finger to pluck the central vibrating tongue (only a small portion of the tongue survives on this example). This artifact was found near the Dung Repository during a 2015 excavation at Mount Vernon. (MVLA)

"The Old Plantation," possibly 1785-1795, attributed to John Rose, depicts a scene in South Carolina. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller.

Today, music is all around us, so much so, at times, that we hardly notice it. It is mostly recorded and played back electronically, with very little effort, and we are largely passive listeners/consumers, only some of whom participate directly in professional or amateur choirs, orchestras, or bands of various sorts. The Mount Vernon of 200 or more years ago was largely a quiet place—it took effort to practice and perform music to please others there, and it was a special occasion to hire a fiddler for dancing or dance practice. To travel up to Alexandria to the theater or a ballroom was truly an extraordinary occasion, of course, only possible with live music. So central to elite sensibilities were music and dance that some verses composed to celebrate the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781 and published in the Independent Ledger concluded with:

Now tories all, what can you say? Come—Is not this a griper?

That while your hopes are danc’d away, ’tis you must pay the piper.

Yankey doodle, keep it up, Yankey doodle, dandy; Mind the music and the step, and with the girls be handy.  

Clearly music was an integral part of the society that flourished in Federal America—a symbol of wealth, of striving for cultural richness. The prominence of instruments in elite homes stands as a monument to the belief that music can make one a better person by working to learn it. Not just that, it made the spaces in which it was played that much more pleasant, inviting, and full of beauty.

About the Author

David K. Hildebrand, Ph.D., is the director of the Colonial Music Institute and was a 2016–17 Washington Library research fellow.