Music of the First Thanksgiving
A very Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family from WOSU Classical 101! To celebrate this day of giving thanks, let's take a look, or rather a listen, to what the Pilgrims and their gracious hosts, the Wampanoag tribe, would have heard on that first breaking of bread... or, cornbread?
In 1621, religious pilgrims of Plymouth, England left their country in search of safety and freedom of religion. Records indicate that 102 men, women, and children boarded the Mayflower for a 66-day journey to the New World. Their trip ended at the tip of what we now call Cape Cod, which was farther north than their intended destination; the mouth of the Hudson River.
By October, these pilgrims had crossed the Massachusetts Bay to establish a new Plymouth, full of hope for a new life in the New World.
After being taught how to cultivate this new land in agriculture by the famous Native American, Squanto of the Pawtuxet tribe, the newest Americans forged an alliance with the Wampanoag people. This collaboration between the pilgrims and the Wampanoag lasted more than 50 years, and remains one of the best relationships between Europeans and First Peoples during this time.
So what did they eat at the first Thanksgiving, and what was on the playlist? Most-shockingly, the first protein sources for these early diners included lobster, seal, and swan meat. (No thanks!)
Thankfully, the music of the first Thanksgiving is a little easier to swallow - pun fully intended.
Here are a few instruments and customs of the Wampanoag and the Plymouth settlers:
The Wampanoag Water Drum is a smaller, hand-held drum, partially filled with water to control the pitch of its vibration.
Female singers used the drum as portable accompaniment for their sacred music
Dried Gourd and Turtle Shell Percussion Instruments included various shapes and sizes of rattles used for sacred music and dances.
Interestingly, each Tribe and Nation had its own unique name and uses for these instruments.
Here is a great video describing the music and culture of the Mashpee Wampanoag people.
The music of the pilgrims of Plymouth was, of course, a bit different in instrumentation, but both groups treated their music as a sacred act with the occasional non-spiritual music played in the home. Those similarities are perhaps even more notable than the differences between the two cultures.
The Psalter, a post-Reformation hymnal, which the pilgrims brought to the New World was surprisingly specific. In 1612, Henry Ainsworth published a hymnal with new translations of the Psalms specifically intended for Separatist congregations. This was the sacred music of people facing exile from England due to religious persecution.
In this new psalter, Ainsworth wrote: “Tunes for the Psalms I find none set of God; so that each people is to use the most grave, decent and comfortable manner of singing that they know. The singing-notes, therefore, I have most taken from our former Englished Psalms, when they will fit the measure of the verse. And for the other long verses I have also taken (for the most part) the gravest and easiest tunes of the French and Dutch Psalms.”