The sound of music, from city’s earliest days

Often thought of as the last bastions of hush, libraries are louder than one might have heard. So tune in and listen closely to Philadelphia’s 300-plus-year musical legacy.

Forsaking it in their religious services and sneering at it in their private lives, the Quaker founders of Philadelphia were a decidedly unmusical bunch. Fortunately for future ears, other religious and ethnic groups were counted among the city’s early settlers, many with active musical traditions – and instruments – in tow.

The mystic Johannes Kelpius and his small band of pietist pilgrims developed a sophisticated musical practice while living alone in the woods along the Wissahickon Creek near Germantown. These German immigrants provided the music for the dedication of Gloria Dei, “Old Swedes,” Church on July 2, 1700, the earliest documented musical performance in Philadelphia.

Francis Johnson, a free black teenager born in Philadelphia, made a name for himself as a bugle and violin virtuoso. His 1817 Collection of New Cotillions contained the first compositions published by an African American, and Johnson soon became the first American – black or white – to lead a musical ensemble on a European tour.

Portrait (lithograph from a daguerreotype, 1846) of Francis “Frank” Johnson (1792-1844), an African-American musician and composer. From the Ferdinand Julius Dreer collection [0175]

The musical contributions of members of Philadelphia’s ethnic and immigrant communities continued into the 19th century, with its own market for sheet music developing in the 1830s. In the absence of recorded music and earbuds, popular tunes known as parlor songs were written for amateur musicians and performed in the homes of their family and friends.

For many aspiring composers, vocalists, and musicians in antebellum Philadelphia, these parlor songs served not only as entertainment but as a means to conserve cultural traditions in their adopted country. The Balch ethnic sheet-music collection contains hundreds of these songbooks and other sheet music dating from the 1820s through the 1960s, and was recently processed (archivalspeak for organizing and inventorying the materials) by HSP’s archivists.


Sheet music c. 1940 for “Hay erg-punchʻ — Armenian Song Bouquet.” From the Balch Institute Sheet Music Collection [3141] 

A kaleidoscope of languages is represented in the spirituals, folk songs, traditional anthems, ballads, and other popular tunes written by and for the city’s Jewish, Greek, Italian, Irish, Swedish, and other ethnic and immigrant communities. Caches of sheet music also tell the stories of Philadelphia’s Hawaiian, Romanian, Russian, Slovak, Scottish, and other groups underrepresented in other cultural repositories.

Until a 2002 merger, the materials in the Balch sheet-music collection were held by the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies, one of the nation’s premier research centers for American immigrant and ethnic experiences. HSP now oversees the care and use of the Balch materials, allowing the library to give a full-throated voice to the history of all Philadelphians.

“Get loud” is perhaps the advice least expected to leave a librarian’s lips. But the scores of sheet music sitting silent on the shelves are inviting the public to do just that, to turn up the volume on a segment of Philadelphia’s musical legacy long muted.

Join us on March 23 for Becoming U.S. – Age and Assimilation, the second program in HSP’s latest series, as we explore the many ways age and generational status affect immigration and assimilation experiences.

Is the experience decidedly different if an individual arrives in the U.S. as a child, or if one is a student or a working adult? Do first-generation immigrants – i.e., the parents – think about assimilation differently than second-generation immigrants – i.e., children? Does one generation wish to celebrate the “home” culture more than the other? Register for the free program here.

Becoming U.S. is a series of programs launched by HSP in fall 2016 to encourage sharing across ethnicity, race, and citizenship status. We want to hear and learn from each other about the human endeavor of transition and settlement. Through civic dialogue, we wish to personalize stories often presented in the media in only the broadest of strokes, to foster a mutual respect and renewed appreciation for the histories of all Philadelphians.


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