Born in Philadelphia in 1737, American Founding Father Francis Hopkinson contributed heavily to the cultural and judicial landscape of the early colonies. With a background in law, he served on the Second Continental Congress in the late 1700s. After signing the Declaration of Independence in 1776 alongside fellow patriots like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, he became Pennsylvania’s first federal judge for the Eastern District Court. An outspoken advocate of America’s independence by way of his judicial powers, he also used his love of music to champion his young country’s timeless principles and ideals of freedom and hope.
A Renaissance Man
Like other Founding Fathers, Hopkinson was a renaissance man. While law took up much of his professional time, when at home he dedicated himself to the study of music. He learned to play a few different instruments while growing up, including the organ and an early keyboard instrument popular in the colonial era known as the “harpsichord.”
As an adult, he expanded his musical abilities and began composing songs. His first known composition, “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free,” was written in 1759, inspired by the poetic words of Irish clergyman Thomas Parnell. Parnell’s poem is nature-driven. He uses images of birds in flight and “gliding waters” to evoke a sense of joy and freedom. Hopkinson’s uplifting, airy melody composed on his harpsichord supports this unfettered essence.
A Puzzling Mystery Solved
Many years after its first publishing, historians remained puzzled by a line Hopkinson included in the collection’s copy. In 1788, he stated, “I cannot, I believe, be refused the credit of being the first native of the United States who has produced a musical composition.”
By the time of the collection’s publishing, songs had already been released by other musicians born on American soil. It wasn’t until modern times, when historians finally had access to his complete body of work housed at the Music Division of the Library of Congress, that they realized there was a good chance he was referencing his earliest-known 1759 composition.
Irish Poetry and American Ideals
It’s unclear when exactly Parnell wrote the original poem that would ultimately be reworked by Hopkinson. He lived from 1679 to 1718, his passing taking place almost 20 years prior to Hopkinson’s birth in Philadelphia. Despite the years and distance between the two men, the Anglo-Irish poet’s beautiful words steeped in virtue and vivid imagery resonated with the Patriot.
Hopkinson was a staunch advocate for America’s Revolutionary War and a passionate statesman for the budding New World. The wide-open feeling of Parnell’s works which were also grounded by serene reflection related to the wider cultural movement Hopkinson helped champion in the colonies. Setting music and melody to the first few stanzas of Parnell’s poem, Hopkinson poignantly focused on the spiritual freedom that parallels America’s bountiful beauty.
Hopkinson wasn’t just a skilled composer with secular music, he spent a lot of time with sacred works as well. His longtime studies of Biblical psalms led to him teaching the singing of psalms to church congregations. He also enjoyed compiling anthologies of worship music for fellow churchgoers. He was active at Philadelphia’s Christ Church, even sitting in for head organist and mentor James Bremner, with whom he shared a great friendship over the years. Hopkinson’s rich body of work and pioneering spirit ultimately earned him the designation of “America’s first poet-composer.”
Among all of Hopkinson’s inspirational and revolutionary accomplishments, the composing of “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free” remains his most enduring, and timely. As the first secular song written by a countryman born on the fertile soil of the New World, once rediscovered, it became more than a composition. The song became a symbol of the freedom and hope associated with the founding of the United States—symbols that are still vital to the preservation of American culture today.