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Musical Firsts

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Musical Firsts
April 2002

You would probably think that New Jerseyans, being so close to the music capital New York City, wouldn't have much music of their own. Think again! New Jersey musicians have had an impact on the music world since colonial days. A number of American musical firsts happened right here in the Garden State.

  • The first American composers were from New Jersey. In 1759, Francis Hopkinson, a Bordentown resident, wrote "My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free." Also in 1759, James Lyon, a Newark minister, wrote an ode for his college graduation. Hopkinson did not write the date on his song, so we don't know which one came first.
  • Hopkinson, who went on to fame as the man recognized as the designer of the American flag, had another national musical first in 1788. His book Seven Songs for Harpsichord or Forte-Piano is believed to be the first music book published in the United States.
  • In 1796, William Dunlap of Perth Amboy wrote The Archers, the first professional opera in the United States.
  • New Jerseyan Lowell Mason became the first American to earn a doctorate degree in music. Mason earned his Ph.D. from New York University in 1855. Known as the "father of American church music," he started the movement to add music to school curriculum in 1853.
  • Jazz artist Willie "The Lion" Smith of Newark was the first African-American recording artist. He played piano for the song "Crazy Blues" by Mamie Smith's Jazz Hounds in 1920.

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