‘My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free’

Francis Hopkinson’s graceful composition embodies the joyous, uplifting spirit of the country’s founding colonies.
‘My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free’
The stanzas from “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free” are nature-driven: Parnel and Hopkinson use images of birds in flight and “gliding waters” to evoke a sense of joy and freedom. Detail of "A Landscape with a Man Fording a Stream," 18th century, by George Barret, Sr. (Public Domain)
11/14/2023
Updated:
12/28/2023
0:00

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.

Perhaps Hopkinson’s most important contribution to the States can be found in his once little-known 1759 composition, “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free.” Though it wasn’t one of his popular songs when it was first published in 1788, the graceful, uplifting tune is now remembered due to its powerful legacy. It is considered to be the first secular song written by a native-born American.

A Renaissance Man

"Francis Hopkinson," 1834, by Thomas Sully. Oil on canvas. (National Gallery of Art, Washington)
"Francis Hopkinson," 1834, by Thomas Sully. Oil on canvas. (National Gallery of Art, Washington)

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.

Nearly 30 years later, in 1788, one of Hopkinson’s most popular collections was published. “Seven Songs for the Harpsichord or Forte Piano” received praise from Jefferson, who wrote to him to say one of his daughters was moved to tears as another learned the pieces. The composer dedicated the collection of compositions to his good friend and future first president of the United States, George Washington. Washington also wrote to Hopkinson to let him know how thankful he was for both the dedication and his musical talents.

A Puzzling Mystery Solved

The 18th-century manuscript of "My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free" by Francis Hopkinson. Library of Congress. (Public Domain)
The 18th-century manuscript of "My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free" by Francis Hopkinson. Library of Congress. (Public Domain)

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.

Music historian and certified archivist Jack McCarthy sheds light on Hopkinson’s mysterious quote in an essay originally published at Rutgers University: “He [was] probably… [referring] to ‘My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free,’ which did not appear in ‘Seven Songs’ but existed in manuscript form in a 1759-60 music book (now held at the Library of Congress) in which Hopkinson copied popular and classical pieces of the day and also recorded some compositions of his own.”

Irish Poetry and American Ideals

Themes of freedom, strength of spirit, and unwavering faith flowed throughout Parnell’s poem and Hopkinson’s reinterpretation. "A Landscape with a Man Fording a Stream," 18th century, by George Barret, Sr. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. (Public Domain)
Themes of freedom, strength of spirit, and unwavering faith flowed throughout Parnell’s poem and Hopkinson’s reinterpretation. "A Landscape with a Man Fording a Stream," 18th century, by George Barret, Sr. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. (Public Domain)

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.

A print of Francis Hopkinson after the 1785 painting by Robert Edge Pine. New York Public Library. (Public Domain)
A print of Francis Hopkinson after the 1785 painting by Robert Edge Pine. New York Public Library. (Public Domain)
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Rebecca Day is an independent musician, freelance writer, and frontwoman of country group, The Crazy Daysies.