Today, America's first song. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Francis Hopkinson was born in Philadelphia in 1737.
He studied at what's now the University of Pennsylvania, and took up law. He
undertook business and public service in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey.
He worked on treaties with the Delaware and Iroquois Indians. He was a federal
judge when he died in 1791.
By then, he'd not only watched the world turn upside down, he'd helped to turn it.
He'd served in the Continental Congress and was a signer of the Declaration of
Independence. But his legacy as much cultural as political. He made strong
contributions to what we might call America's personality.
As a teenager, he took up the harpsichord and was soon playing with professionals.
He also composed -- both poetry and music. He wrote psalm settings and hymns.
He invented a new method for quilling harpsichords, and he improved on
Benjamin Franklin's invention of the glass armonica
by adding a keyboard to it.
Hopkinson's amazing array of talents included graphic design. As best we can
reconstruct the history of the U.S. flag, he created its basic design early in 1777.
His flag included the thirteen red and white bars, with thirteen six-pointed stars
in either staggered rows of 3-2-3-2-3 or a circle. (Betsy Ross improved that with
One Hopkinson contribution in particular haunts me -- a single, very special, song:
"My Days have Been So Wondrous Free." He wrote it when he was just 21. He took the
text from early 18th-century Irish poet Thomas Parnell, and created a powerful
expression of a universal yearning for freedom. The melody is wonderfully fluid.
That song is the oldest surviving secular music composed in America -- a celebration
of the desire that shaped our country. Hopkinson was 53 when he died of a stroke.
He'd seen us through from a colony chafing under foreign rule to a new established nation.
And we can only wonder what he might've done if he'd been able to finish a life so
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
R. Crawford, Hopkinson, Francis. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians
(Stanley Sadie, ed.). New York: MacMillan Publishers, Ltd., 1980, Vol. 8, pp. 691-692.
See also the online articles about Hopkinson in
Wikipedia and in
Archiving Early America.
The full original poem, My Days Have Been ... may be found here.
The song heard in this episode was sung by Rosalind Rees of the Gregg Smith Singers, with James Richman as harpsichordist -- from the CD,
America Sings, Vol. 1, The Founding Years (1620-1800.) Vox Box CDX 5080:
Second CD, Track 18. Both images above are courtesy of Wikipedia
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2009 by John H.