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No. 2449:
Francis Hopkinson

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 HopkinsonFrancis 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 flagHopkinson'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 five-pointed stars.) 

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.

[Audio: The opening passage of My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free]

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 auspiciously begun.

[Audio: The closing passage of My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free]

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

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

Opening measures of the song