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Music for the Mayflower

04 September 2020

Tamsin Lewis looks at the evidence for music aboard the Mayflower

courtesy of rondo publishing

The Lord’s Prayer in Allison’s Psalter, set out as a ‘table-book’ around which the musicians could gather

The Lord’s Prayer in Allison’s Psalter, set out as a ‘table-book’ around which the musicians could gather

IN THE late summer of 1620, the Mayflower sailed from England. Besides 36 crew members, this ship carried 102 passengers: Separatists, merchants, their families, their servants, and their apprentices, all seeking a fresh start in the New World. This much is well known. What is perhaps less widely known is that some of the passengers travelled with books of music and a few musical instruments.

An inventory of the library of Elder William Brewster taken in May 1644 includes three music books all dating from before the date when the Mayflower sailed, and at least one other copy of one of these books can be traced back to other passengers. These books give us an insight into the range of music that might have been sung on board ship.

The first of these books was the 1612 edition of Henry Ainsworth’s Book of Psalmes Englished both in Prose and Metre. Henry Ainsworth was a Separatist, like many of the passengers on the Mayflower, and, like them, had moved to the Low Countries to seek freedom of worship. He wrote his own translations for the psalms in verse and prose, aiming to keep as closely as possible to the Hebrew originals, and annotated them. With the words of the psalms, Ainsworth included unharmonised melodies, and his book continued to be used for worship in Plymouth Colony, Salem, and other parts of America until the late 17th century.

For his musical settings, he says, “The singing notes therfore I have most taken fro our former Englished psalms, when they will fit the mesure 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.” Ainsworth gives 39 melodies, and, of these, 19 are also found in the Sternhold and Hopkins Psalters, including the Old 100th.

The other melodies can, for the most part, be traced to psalters from Geneva and Strasbourg, or to the songs sung by the Huguenots in France. A few psalm tunes are unique to Ainsworth’s book, including that used for psalm 107, which includes these words:

They that in ships unto the sea down goe
That in the many waters labour doe,
They see Jehovah’s operations,
And in the deep his wondrous actions.

Another copy of Ainsworth’s psalms travelled on the Mayflower in the possession of Isaac Allerton and was later given to Giles Heale, the ship’s surgeon, as evidenced by its inscription, which indicates a date of February 1621.

Psalters such as this were used not only by men. Later in February 1621, Heale gave the book to his wife, Mary, who inscribed it “Mary Hele her booke”. The book survives and is now held in the Library of Virginia, where it is bound together with a 1617 volume of Ainsworth’s Annotations on the Psalms.

The second book of music carried on the Mayflower was another Psalter: Richard Allison’s The Psalmes of Dauid in Meter, The plaine Song beeing the common tunne to be sung and plaide vpon the Lute, Orpharyon, Citterne or Base Violl, seuerally or altogether, the singing part to be either Tenor or Treble to the Instrument, according to the nature of the voyce, or for fowre voyces: 1599.

Like many of the songbooks of its time, this book is laid out in the “table-book” format that was so popular for domestic music-making, so that the musicians and singers could sit around the book and sing or play from different ends. There are 70 settings of psalms and prayers. In contrast to Ainsworth’s single-line settings, the music in Allison’s Psalter is more elaborate. It is harmonised for four voices (or instruments, as its title suggests) and lute and cittern tablature is also printed for each psalm.

It might seem strange to find a book in which voices and instruments are joined in harmony in the possession of the Separatists, but it is worth remembering that the so-called Puritan disdain for music was not shared by all, particularly at this early stage, and that the Separatists themselves were known for combining instruments and voices and enjoying music. John Taylor relates in his Three-fold Discourse of 1642, how Robert Browne, the founder of the Separatists, “was a singular good Lutenist, and he made his Son Timothy usually on Sundays bring his Viol to Church and play the Base to the Psalmes that were sung, so far was he . . . from being an enemy to Church Musicke”.

The third book of songs identified as belonging to William Brewster’s library is The golden garland of princely pleasures and delicate delights Wherin is conteined the histories of many of the kings, queenes, princes, lords, ladies, knights, and gentlewomen of this kingdome. Being most pleasant songs and sonnets to sundry new tunes now most in vse: the third time imprinted, enlarged and corrected by Rich. Iohnson. Deuided into two parts. In contrast to the previous two books, this is a collection of secular song lyrics, and, beyond a slight moralising tone in many of the songs, contains nothing religious.

The first section contains some 15 ballads telling of famous historical tales from Tamburlaine and King Lear to Queen Elizabeth’s triumph against the Spaniards, the purported dastardly deeds of Richard III and the pathetic death of Lady Jane Grey. Although the ballads were printed all together in Johnson’s book many, if not all, were also published as individual broadside ballad sheets.

The second part of Johnson’s Golden Garland contains the lyrics of 14 songs. There are ballads with tune indications and alongside these is a song from Thomas Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the Exchange, and a number of poems with pastoral titles. On closer examination, these turn out to be the lyrics of some of the best known lute songs of the time.

Again, The Golden Garland does not necessarily fit with the stereotypical view of Separatist music, but it could be that the singing of these songs goes well with the idea of combining instruments and voices as mentioned above. Another possibility is that the book might have belonged to another Mayflower passenger and ended up in Brewster’s collection at a later date. Whatever its origin, it is a book full of variety.

As for specific musical instruments, the only mention that we have in a contemporary account is by William Bradford, writing in 1622, in which he describes an encounter between the settlers and the native Wampanoag chief Massasoit and his brother Quadequina: “Then instantly came our governor with Drumme and Trumpet after him.” During the peace negotiations, Bradford also relates how Quadequina “marveled much at our trumpet”, while the Wampanoag Indians even had a go at playing it: “some of his men would sound it as well as they could.” This trumpet and drum must have been carried on board the Mayflower.


Dr Tamsin Lewis is a writer and researcher and artistic director of Passamezzo.


Passamezzo’s album They that in Ships unto the Sea down go: Music for the Mayflower is available from Resonus Classics. www.resonusclassics.com (CD or download).

An accompanying book of music, edited by Tamsin Lewis, is available from Rondo Publishing. www.rondopublishing.co.uk (£15.99).

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