It is not possible even to estimate the age of any of the so-called American folk-songs, although it is probable that a number were in existence before 1800. On the other hand, the popular music of the eighteenth century is well known. The literature of peoples songs consisted largely of English ballads and songs, some of them introduced in the ballad-operas. Many of these songs are still current, and it is not difficult to re-enact the singing of Washington’s time.
The famous tune of Green Sleeves is very old, some authorities date it from 1580, so it must have been known in America during Washington’s boyhood. The Vicar of Bray appeared in ballad-operas from 1728:
Girls and Boys Come Out to Play appeared in the ballad-opera Polly, a sequel to the Beggar’s Opera, in 1729:
Old King Cole announced his appearance in Gay’s Achilles in 1733 with this tune:
Rule Brittania was highly popular in the colonies before the Revolution. Dr. Arne composed the music in 1740, and it was well-known in America within a few years after this date. Sally in Our Alley has had an honorable career in America as well as in England. The words have been sung to two tunes, the first dating from 1719, and composed by Henry Carey:
About 1760, however, Carey’s tune seems to have been discarded, and since that time the verses have been sung to a tune known earlier as The Country Lass:
The Girl I Left Behind Me has always been popular with fife and drum corps. Authorities differ as to its age; some think it originated about 1758, while others date its English origin as late as 1778. The stirring tune of The British Grenadiers was also popular in America. The age of this air is unknown, although there is reason to believe that it originated in England in the Elizabethan period. There are frequent references to it on American concert programs from as early as 1769.
Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes, as a poem, is very old, for its author, Ben Jonson, lived from 1573 to 1637. No doubt it has been known as a song for centuries, but the present tune hasn’t been safely dated before 1780. It was frequently sung in America after 1787.
O, Dear, What Can the Matter Be started its American vogue in the closing years of the eighteenth century. Different authorities date its English origin from 1780 to 1792, and American references to the song date from its publication in Shaw’s Gentleman’s Amusement in 1795.
This is but a brief list of some of the English songs popular in Washington’s time which are still known today. Doubtless he was familiar with them, for he went to concerts and the theatre, and also enjoyed the playing of music in his own home. While he probably played no instruments nor sang himself, he nevertheless provided instruments and a musical education to his stepchildren and step-grand-children. At Mount Vernon there are still preserved several music books which belonged to the Washington household; two of them were owned by Martha Parke Custis, the daughter of Martha Washington, who died in 1773. One of these bears the signature of Martha Custis, and the date 1769. It is entitled:
“Harpsichord or spinnet – Miscellany, being a Graduation of Proper Lessons from the Beginner to the tollerable Performer. Chiefly intended to save Masters the trouble of writing for their Pupils. To which are prefixed some Rules for Time. By Robert Bremner”.
Included in the contents are a Lesson by Lully, a Gavotte (in F) by Corelli, and a few popular airs of the period – such tunes as Maggy Lauder and God Save the King.
The other book belonging to Martha Custis was entitled New and Complete Instructions for the Guitar. It contained a number of dances of the period, minuets, cotillions, and such country dances as The Hay-Makers Dance, and many popular airs; among them Here’s to the maiden of bashful fifteen, I winna marry ony mon, and others.
Three of the music books at Mount Vernon belonged to Eleanor Parke (Nelly) Custis, and among their contents are six sonatas by Nicolai (Nos. I to VI inclusive), Overture de Blaise et Babet by Dezede, adapted for the Piano Forte, the score of Goldsmith’s The Hermit, set to music by James Hook, and three piano sonatas by G. Maurer.