Though clear distinctions between popular, classical, folk and other broad areas of music are recognized today, it was not always so. Much music of the 17th and 18th centuries now called "baroque" or "classical" was broadly popular and not enjoyed solely by the upper classes. Songs of composers such as Handel and Haydn were not only widely heard in their day, but also were performed in private homes and public settings by amateurs for their families and friends. Melodies were sometimes appropriated from such sources, and repurposed as dance tunes or melodies for ballads and hymns. Hymns were often sung recreationally as well.
Although it was not until the mid-19th century that distinctly American popular song styles emerged, they did not emerge from a vacuum. Political differences notwithstanding, Americans living before and after the Revolution were willing consumers of British music, theater and literature. Many people of the day, including America's first notable composers, were fortunate enough to be exposed to a broad mixture of art music, folk music, hymnody, and a wide range of songs that were disseminated though popular "ballad operas" of the days such as John Gay's The Beggar's Opera from 1728, as well as in song collections from England such as Thomas D'Urfey's Pills to Purge Melancholy, published in several editions between 1698 and 1720, and George Bickham's The Musical Entertainer (1736-1739)
Well into the 19th Century, the popular music of the United States was largely that of Great Britain. From the early 18th century on though, popular songs were being written and published as broadsides, single sheets of paper containing lyrics for a song and indicating a well-known melody to which they should be sung, usually a British one. Some of the most memorable lyrics start to appear in the 1760s, when disgruntled colonists found a voice for their complaints against authority in "Liberty songs, " humorous and bitter attacks on the Crown, the British Army, and colonial power figures that made ironic use of patriotic British melodies. This practice continued through the Revolution and beyond, and it is one of the ironies of our musical history that both "The Star Spangled Banner" and "My Country 'Tis of Thee" use appropriated British melodies.
In this period, America's first composers also emerged. In 1759, Francis Hopkinson and James Lyon, each from Philadelphia, both set words to their own original music; Irish poet Thomas Parnell's "My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free , " in Hopkinson's case, and an ode for a graduation ceremony in Lyon's. Though neither work had great impact at the time, both men soon contributed important early American music publications. In 1761, Lyon published Urania, a collection of sacred music melodies. In 1763, Hopkinson published his own collection of religious melodies, Collection of Plain Tunes with a Few from Anthems and Hymns. Lyons remained primarily a hymnist, but Hopkinson branched out, writing patriotic works during the American Revolution, including what he held to be the first American opera, The Temple of Minerva, staged in Philadelphia in early 1781. Although this seems to have been the first publicly performed opera written by an American, a writer using the pseudonym of "Andrew Barton" earlier had written Dissapointment, or the Force of Credulity, a ballad opera that mocked George III, as well as prominent citizens of Philadelphia. Its premiere performance in 1767 was cancelled, and it was not performed publicly until 1976, at the Library of Congress. Nevertheless, the libretto was published in 1767 and sold well, with a revised edition published in 1796. It is likely that some of the songs in it were popularly sung into at least the early 18th century.
William Billings of Boston, though primarily a religious writer and composer, occasionally worked in what could be regarded as the popular realm. Several of his hymns are more topical than they are liturgical, such as "Chester, " which invokes God's name as it rails against tyranny, and was a favorite of Continental soldiers throughout the Revolution. "Lamentation Over Boston, " based on "By the Rivers of Babylon, " bewails the city's fate under British occupation. His "Modern Music" is not religious at all, but a humorous account of an audience at a concert.
Native topics became the subject of songs as well. Tobias Hume, a British soldier and composer, celebrated one of the New World's most important cash crops in his 1605 song "Tobacco Is Like Love." British poet Anne Hunter, impressed with a travelers' account of an air he said was sung by Indians facing death wrote "The Death Song of the Cherokee Indian" in 1784. It was soon set to music and became enormously popular in the United States, and is sung by a character in Royall Tyler's "The Contrast External, " a 1787 satire of former colonists following British fashion too closely that was the first comedy by an American ever staged.