A Magazine About Food, Art & Exchange In Midtown Kingston, Published By The Hudson Valley Current.

ARTS OF INDEPENDENCE: MEDIA IN THE REVOLUTIONARY ERA

By the last quarter of the 18th century, enough immigrants of various nations had established a toehold on the North American continent that the dominant Puritan influence of the 1600s had begun to fade. Life was still pretty dour in much of New England, with secular everything frowned upon, but the human spirit is stronger than anybody’s rulebook. Every colony had a printing press; there were forty-two newspapers by the time the Revolution kicked off; books other than the Bible were beginning to show up.

The Music Scene: 

People are still listening to performances of Bach’s work,but it’s getting a bit dated; Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn symphonies are becoming the hot ticket in big city music halls, and in the 1770s they’re also writing chamber music, secular pieces for trios, quartets and quintets to perform in smaller venues and homes. All you needed were some stringed instruments, a piano or harpsichord, and maybe a flute or clarinet. Like Bach, harpsichords were old school by then.

In New York City,  “pleasure gardens” modeled on those beloved by the English were a huge hit.. Pleasure gardens had performance art just about every day — jugglers, magicians, strongmen, live music, dancing, fireworks —  centered around a tavern, with plenty of green space for relaxing.

But away from the big cities, all music being live in those days, you had to make your own fun, at the tavern or in the living room. Lots of families had a harpsichord, a flute and a violin around, and people would sing and 

play songs they’d made up or heard and liked. A good story made for a ballad.

The Stedman Creole Bania, the oldest banjo known from the American continent. Collected in the 1770’s.

Enslaved people brought with them work songs and spirituals and a wide variety of instruments that Europeans had never seen like kalimbas and xylophones. Drums were forbidden on the plantations because the enslavers were afraid that the enslaved would use them to conspire, hollowed-out gourds covered in hide were made into banjos. Writers of Protestant European hymns soon appropriated the call and response structure for their churches; they weren’t ready for polyrhythms and dancing was forbidden, but they did manage to swipe that much.

Kalimba, by Rod Waddington 

As the relationship deteriorated between the colonies and the British monarchy, the rising tension made its way into popular music. People adopted new lyrics to familiar tunes.

“Three Generals these mandates have borne ‘cross the sea, To deprive ’em of fish and make ’em drink tea;

In turn, sure, these freemen will boldly agree, To give ’em a dance upon a Liberty Tree.

Derry down, down, hey derry down.

Then freedom’s the word, both at home and abroad, And —— every scabbard that hides a good sword!

Our forefathers gave us this freedom in hand, And we’ll die in defence of the rights of the land.

Derry down, down, hey derry down.”

Propaganda and satire in song were rife on both sides of the conflict. Drum and fife kept the armies marching in step.”Yankee Doodle” was originally British satire aimed to break rebel hearts; the Yanks embraced it as their own and it became a massive popular hit. “Hearts of Oak” was another standby, and “A-Taxing We Will Go” was biting satire aimed straight back at the Redcoat cause.

Visual Arts:

The Revolution shook up the world of oil painting, which in earlier Colonial times had tended toward flattering portraits of wealthy patrons and religious themes; settler art was heavily Eurocentric for a long time. John Singleton Copley and Benjamin West were two of the big names painting “narrative history” through a distinctly romanticized lens. 

Out in the countryside, some people made pen-and-ink drawings. But settler folk art tended toward the practical; life was still an enormous logistical challenge, and making a useful table and chairs or bedstead took priority over adornment for adornment’s sake, “The idea was to endow common items and activities with beauty, thus enriching everyday life, what might be termed ‘externally justifiable’ art,” writes Awet Amedechiel at Historycentral.com. “Thus, there were more architects and furniture-makers than painters and sculptors; more almanacs than novels; and more hymns than operas.”

The North American Indians had been here a while, of course. They too tended toward the practical, producing pots, blankets, baskets, clothing. tools and hunting gear that blended utility, beauty and symbolism. Making things and music were community ritual, with a strong spiritual and philosophical component expressed through form and decorative adornment alike.

Lenape basket & tools

Political cartooning came into its own in the struggle for independence; New York City was a hotbed of illustrated quipsters. Gems like “Poor old England endeavoring to reclaim his wicked children” and “Tory’s day of judgment,” featuring a Brit hoisted aloof by the seat of his pants by rebels while the Dutch sip rum and look on, were the memes of their day. Perhaps the most viral of the bunch was a chopped-up snake captioned “JOIN, or DIE.” Sly meme-maker Ben Franklin first published the woodblock print in 1754, as commentary on the French and Indian War, it would be repurposed and repopularized during the Revolution.

Words:

Franklin, a mixed bag if ever there was, was the very definition of the old line “never aggravate a man who owns a printing press.”  He published and circulated a perpetual flow of material pointing out what he considered the lunacy of one British policy after another. Rebels adored him. The British probably thought of him the way the present-day left thinks of Sean Hannity.

Playwright Mercy Otis Warren  penned some of the better-known satirical dramas of her day; her first was published anonymously, and even her later stuff, though widely read, was almost never performed. 

One of the most admired poets of the Revolutionary era was an enslaved woman of color kidnapped from West Africa to Boston, Phillis Wheatley. “In every human breast,” she wrote, “God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom.”