"My days have been so wondrous free"

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Last week, my old friend Hopkinson Smith gave a concert here in Philadelphia. This reminded me that one of the entries in the Quadrangle at the University of Pennsylvania is named for his great6-grandfather Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who was also the author of the first secular song in the European tradition known to have been composed in America. (And right next to the Hopkinson entry, by chance, is an entry named for William Smith, the university's first provost, so that the standard map of the Quad happens to have Hoppy's full name in the middle of its upper right-hand border.

So I looked on line for a copy of Francis Hopkinson's first song, and found a facsimile of the manuscript on the web site of the Library of Congress. The lyrics are a ballad by Thomas Parnell (1679-1718), and Francis Hopkinson apparently wrote his setting in 1759, when he was 22 years old, although it was not published until 1788.

Parnell's poem begins

My Days have been so wondrous Free,
__The little Birds that flie
With careless Ease from Tree to Tree,
__Were but as bless'd as I.

Before long, the poet contemplates abandoning his freedom for the bondage of a romantic relationship:

But now my former Days retire,
__And I'm by Beauty caught,
The tender Chains of sweet Desire
__Are fix'd upon my Thought.

According to an 1880 Dictionary of English Literature, Parnell's poem was "addressed to his lady-love, a Miss Anne Minchin, whom he afterwards married."

Anyhow, I thought it was nice to see that America's first secular song was about freedom and commitment. And I was also struck by the fact that the first line exemplifies the old-fashioned adverbial usage of adjectival forms.

For those for whom the hand-written sheet music is not enough of a clue, here's a performance in modern dress and style of "My Days":

And if you haven't had enough of Francis Hopkinson, you may enjoy The Old Farm and the New Farm: A Political Allegory, which he published in 1774 under the pen name of "Peter Grievous, Esq., A.B.C.D.E."


  1. Mary Bull said,

    February 6, 2012 @ 11:02 am

    Wondrous wonderful, to me, this entire post!

  2. KevinM said,

    February 6, 2012 @ 11:35 am

    A political allegory about a farm? Now there's a concept that turned out to have (four) legs!

  3. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 6, 2012 @ 12:12 pm

    Is this the same phenomenon as non-standard straight (AmE) and right, pure, bare (BrE) as synonyms for very? Or have they been fully re-analysed as distinct adverbs in a way that wondrous wasn't?

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 6, 2012 @ 5:44 pm

    @Pflaumbaum: I'm more familiar with straight-up than with straight as American slang for very or something like it.

    In GKP's latest post, he wrote, "…it would embarrass England if he led the team in the upcoming Euro 2012 tournament and was then found guilty of a racist speech offense straight afterwards." Is that straight American or British or both?

  5. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 6, 2012 @ 6:59 pm

    Oh, in that sense I'd say both.

    I was thinking of the AAVE straight, as in straight dope/wack. But now you mention it, I've heard it more with verbs, as in You straight clownin', in which case it clearly can't mean very.

    But my AAVE knowledge is very limited, being gleaned mostly from hip-hop and The Wire, so I may be wrong…

  6. Joe Rembetikoff said,

    February 6, 2012 @ 7:25 pm

    I don't think straight ever means very, more like completely or with no reservations, just up and doing something all the way.
    But in AAvE and colloquial American in general we do drop a lot of -lys.

  7. Eric P Smith said,

    February 6, 2012 @ 8:48 pm

    While straight as an adjunct to a verb may be AAVE, I think that straight is absolutely standard as an adjunct to a preposition, both in American English and British English: straight up, straight on, straight afterwards etc. (I class afterwards as a preposition following CGEL.)

  8. Tom Saylor said,

    February 6, 2012 @ 9:29 pm

    The manuscript shows a vocal melody accompanied only by a bass line (unfigured, as far as I can make out), so where did the busy chordal figures in the pianist's right hand come from?

    [(myl) Melody and unfigured bass is a pretty common pattern for compositions in that era — including Hopkinson's 1788 "Seven Songs for the Harpsichord or Forte Piano" (smaller pdf here). The harmony (and thus the implicit figuration) is generally plain enough. So the standard performance practice of the time would enable an accompanist to improvise (or work out in advance) a right-hand part — and some extra stuff for the left hand as well.

    That said, what the accompanist plays in that video clip is (I think) more appropriate for 1800 or 1820 than for 1759, which was the year of Handel's death, and three years before J.C. Bach moved to London. I believe that it was probably worked out and written down by some (probably 19th-century) editor, and not the accompanist, though I could be wrong about this.]

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 6, 2012 @ 10:52 pm

    One could construct a fair number of plausible-sounding names from adjoining entryway names in that quadrangle, some entirely unexceptional (e.g. Rodney Coxe or Craig Baird), others sounding more marked as a certain sort of now-mostly-bygone WASPy onomastics (e.g. Baldwin McKean or Ashurst Magee). The summum bonum of that genre, of course, is a name in which both orders seem equally plausible. I think Lippincott Carruth v. Carruth Lippincott is a pretty even match.

  10. Antariksh Bothale said,

    February 7, 2012 @ 5:43 am

    I have a small doubt. From what I know, all nouns were capitalized in the English of that period (a style that still lives in German), but the word free in the first line seems to be an adjective in a predicative role.

    What's wrong? My lexical analysis or my knowledge of capitalization rules of that period?

  11. Tom Saylor said,

    February 7, 2012 @ 5:58 am

    To myl:

    Many thanks for the link! I note that Hopkinson does occasionally (e.g., in measure 17 of Song VI) spell out a full chord for the keyboardist's right hand, even though the chord choice is completely obvious. The music is generally unadventurous, though there's a surprising shift from the dominant major to the dominant minor key in Song VII, near the top of page 10.

  12. marie-lucie said,

    February 7, 2012 @ 10:19 am

    The music: clicking on the link brings up a page of instrumental music with words in between, not a melody with figured bass. How did others get that?

    [(myl) I'm not sure which link you're talking about, but Hopkinson's solo songs are mostly presented as a melody in the treble clef and a bass line in the bass clef, with the words in between. The melody is sometimes associated with the words, and thus would have been sung, and sometimes not, and in that case would have been played by the accompanist(s). This can be clearly seen in the 1788 publication here. A melody over an unfigured bass had been one of the normal ways to present solo vocal music for more than a century — thus see the solo songs of William Lawes (sample here), written in that form in 1639-1641.

    Sometimes even less information was given — thus Ritson's A select collection of English songs, 1783, gives only the melodies.]

    The words:

    My Days have been so wondrous Free,
    __The little Birds that flie
    With careless Ease from Tree to Tree,
    __Were but as bless'd as I.

    Am I right that were here is a subjunctive: [I have been so happy that I wish] the little birds … were as blessed as I.

  13. languagehat said,

    February 7, 2012 @ 10:59 am

    From what I know, all nouns were capitalized in the English of that period

    Not true; capitalization was much more haphazard than that and not dependent on grammatical function.

    I must say, I'm very surprised no secular songs are known to have been composed in the American colonies before 1759; I realize the Puritans weren't big on secular music, but surely after the Restoration, with the craze for song so visible in England (witness Pepys's pride in his "Beauty retire"), some of it must have trickled across the Atlantic. I'm guessing there were a fair number of songs composed that simply didn't survive.

    [(myl) I'm also surprised at the late date. However, the claim has been out there for a long time, and no one seems to have stepped forward to challenge it.]

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 7, 2012 @ 12:35 pm

    Presumably part of the problem is that for a lot of secular/popular songs of the day, only the words actually circulated in printed form (e.g. "broadside ballads" riffing on the news of the day) with the tunes passing on in unwritten form from uncertain origins. So, for example, in 1759 a well-known broadside ballad was composed, first appearing on this side of the Atlantic because that's where the breaking news story had occurred, on the death of General Wolfe at the siege of Quebec. I'm not sure anyone knows what tune it was first sung to, whether it was original or reused, when it was first set down in notes-on-a-staff, and by whom and on which side of the ocean it was first composed.

    [(myl) For songs in certain standard meters — especially ballad meter — there were (and are) plenty of available tunes to use, as you suggest.]

  15. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    February 7, 2012 @ 1:35 pm

    marie-lucie: I don't think so. The birds were but as blessed as he, i.e. they were no more blessed – that's an assertion.

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 7, 2012 @ 2:21 pm

    I guess my thesis is that it seems unlikely that 100% of the stock of tunes suitable for ballad-meter texts that were extant in Anglophone North America as of 12/31/1758 had been composed in Europe, and that is is thus likely that some New World composition by that prolific fellow Anon. (or perhaps his colleagues Trad. and/or Public Domain) antedated Hopkinson's new setting for Parnell's text. Parnell's text of course also works perfectly (like most of the poetry of Emily Dickinson) if sung to the 20th century tune variously known as "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" or "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke."

  17. marie-lucie said,

    February 7, 2012 @ 2:35 pm

    Andrew, thanks for the correction. I was misled by the "but".

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 7, 2012 @ 4:12 pm

    @Pflaumbaum: Another adjective that's become an adverb to intensify adjectives, especially in British English, is "dead".

    I don't hear a lot of AAVE, so I'll take your word for it.

    @Eric P. Smith: I have "straight" as an adjunct for only certain prepositions, depending on the meaning: straight through but not *straight beside (not as an adjunct to the preposition, anyway).

    To answer my own question, "straight afterwards" is more than 20 times as common in British English as in American English, and in the past few decades it's become more common in British English than "right afterwards is", according to Google Ngrams. I don't remember ever encountering it.

  19. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    February 7, 2012 @ 6:13 pm

    By the way, Psalm 145, verse 3 in the Prayer Book version reads 'Great is the Lord, and marvellous worthy to be praised'. While this is certainly the correct reading, some people have tried to amend it to 'Great is the Lord and marvellous, worthy to be praised', on the grounds that 'marvellous worthy' is not proper English.

  20. Eric P Smith said,

    February 7, 2012 @ 7:43 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: Thanks. Yes, I agree the availability of "straight" as an adjunct for a preposition depends on the meaning of the preposition. I hadn't realised that "straight afterwards" is so uncommon in American English.

  21. John Walden said,

    February 8, 2012 @ 3:47 am

    I see that "pretty" as an adverbial has been used twice on the page:

    "a pretty common pattern"

    "a pretty even match"

    It seems so unremarkable but the shift from "relatively beautiful/neat" to just "relatively" is fairly interesting –

    "Fair" can be used in some Englishes: "I'm fair sure".

  22. Rodger C said,

    February 8, 2012 @ 12:14 pm

    @Andrew (not the other one): At my previous college in Kentucky, my dean, from Massachusetts, once asked me where our students had picked up the barbarous innovation of using "clean" as an adverb. I immediately quoted Psalm 37 (Coverdale): "Yet a little while, and the ungodly shall be clean gone." She gasped, looked disoriented, and changed the subject.

  23. Rodger C said,

    February 8, 2012 @ 12:16 pm

    *same one

  24. marie-lucie said,

    February 8, 2012 @ 4:47 pm

    Stark as in stark naked is another one, although apparently frozen in this single phrase.

  25. Mitch said,

    February 9, 2012 @ 2:47 pm

    For those here at Penn the library has a good collection of music from Hopkinson's personal collection as well as his own manuscript harpsichord song book that he used for performance (http://dla.library.upenn.edu/dla/franklin/record.html?id=FRANKLIN_1447442).

    There's a good summary of Hopkinson music material at Penn here:

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