Monday, April 9, 2012

What music was on Mary Dyer's iPod?

© Christy K. Robinson

Woman With a Cittern,
by Pieter van Slingeland
William Dyer was born in 1609, near the Lincolnshire fens, and Mary Barrett probably in 1611 in the London area. They would have heard folk music performed at fairs and at special occasions like wedding and holiday dances. Fiddlers played recreational music. William probably heard bawdy songs in taverns and as he went about his apprenticeship in London. Mary, who seems to have been privately educated, may have had access to private parties or even court events, and she would have heard sinfonias, dance suites, chorales, and perhaps a masque (a participatory operetta with a moral to the story). 

The instruments they’d have heard were flutes/recorders, drums, trumpets, the viol family, harps, guitars, lutes, bagpipes from Scotland and Ireland, and virginals (small keyboards similar to a harpsichord).
Woman Seated at a Virginal,
by Jan Vermeer
In English churches, there were organs, choirs, and sometimes string ensembles until the Puritan restrictions on music in religious meetings. When, in May 1644, the Puritan Parliament legalized the demolition of sacred objects (crosses, stained glass, paintings, tapestries, saint images, etc.), they declared that ‘all organs, and the frames or cases wherein they stand in all churches or chapels aforesaid, shall be taken away, and utterly defaced, and none other hereafter set up in their places.’

Church music
In New England, where the Dyers lived after 1635, there were no church organs—organs being related to the hated Catholic mass, and drawing attention away from God and to the skills of the performer. At Sabbath meetings of the Massachusetts Bay churches, they sang psalms without musical accompaniment. Rev. John Cotton disapproved of instruments in worship. In 1640, three ministers published the first book in the American colonies: a psalter that they approved for use in the churches of Massachusetts Bay. It was a text of psalms in rhyme, without notes because almost no one could read musical notation. In a short time, congregations forgot the tunes, and each singer sang in his or her own key, melody, and rhythm. (Perhaps something like a “Happy Birthday” cacophony today.)

Thomas Walter wrote at the end of the 17th century: "The tunes are now miserably tortured and twisted and quavered, in some churches, into a medly of confused and disorderly voices. Our tunes are left to the mercy of every unskillful throat to chop and alter, to twist and change... No two men in the Congregation quaver alike or together, it sounds in the ear of a good judge like five hundred different tunes roared out at the same time with perpetual interferings with one another." Source: Puritans at Play: Leisure and Recreation in Colonial New England, by Bruce C. Daniels, p. 54.

James Franklin (Benjamin Franklin's older brother) wrote in 1720s satire that he was "credibly informed that a certain gentlewoman miscarried at the ungrateful and yelling noise of a deacon" whom Franklin described as a "procurer of abortions."

Viol da gamba, two lutes, and a pocket fiddle
Music as art and recreation
Though church music was in a woeful state, colonial secular music flourished at celebrations of all sorts, including dances and festivals, and urban dwellers spent evenings “consorting” with their instruments, particularly violins and viols. The more highly-educated (ministers, teachers, merchants) had the larger, more expensive instruments like the viol da gamba (six-stringed, but similar in size to the four-stringed cello) or the virginal. Many households who valued music but had less money, used shoulder-held violins or a cittern, a wire-stringed instrument between a banjo and a mandolin. Military men naturally favored the trumpet, fife, or drum.

A Musical Party,
by Jacob van Velsen, 1631
William and Mary Dyer were educated, of the merchant class, and he was both a military man (captain of militia, and later, admiral) and a government official.  They would have attended and hosted parties, harvest festivals, weddings, house raisings and sewing bees, and the militia training days when potluck feasts and dances occurred. It’s reasonable to expect that they at least danced and enjoyed musical performances in homes, if not took part in music-making themselves.


Click the highlight for information on 17th century musical instruments in New France (French territories in North America).

The following links are videos of 17th century English music that might have touched the ears of the Dyers and their associates. Click the highlighted titles to open a new tab in You Tube.

17th century English or Scottish folk tune The Water is Wide

17th century English street song The Crost Couple, or A Good Misfortune.

17th century English song, The Bailiff’s Daughter of Islington – recorder and guitar

William Byrd, Earl of Oxford's March Brass quintet

Nicholas Lanier, Mark How the Blushful Morn – soprano voice and lute

Nicholas Lanier, Love’s Constancy – soprano voice and lute

Try this early-17th century tune on your own at home!

Give a woman a lute, and it's Girls Gone Wild, I tell you!

THIS is what comes of popular music!
Every time she hit a certain pitch,
her bodice just dropped. 


  1. My ears hurt from imagining how those hymns must have sounded. Thank you, Mistress Dyer, and I am sure that you sang like a lark!

  2. Enjoyable and enlightening post!

  3. the music is just wonderful thankyou ms mary

  4. hmm this is a great little site thanks for the knowledge ;)


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