‘They that in Ships unto the Sea down go: Music for the Mayflower’: A Guest Post by Tamsin Lewis of Passamezzo

I direct the early music group Passamezzo, an established ensemble known for their ability to bring historical events to life through their engaging performances and programming. We specialize in English Elizabethan and Jacobean repertoire.

2020 marks the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower, and so it seems appropriate to record a CD of music to celebrate this event. Our programme aims to recreate the world of those on board ship: the Saints, the Strangers, and the sailors.

In Autumn 1620, the Mayflower left England. In addition to the ship’s crew, there were 102 passengers: Separatists, merchants, their families and apprentices, all seeking a fresh start in the New World.

This much is well known.  What is perhaps less widely known is that Elder William Brewster (one of the passengers) had three books of music with him. 

The fist of these was Henry Ainsworth’s translation of the psalms, with simple melodies. We have taken the title of our programme They that in Ships unto the Sea down go from Ainsworth’s translation of Psalm 107.

The second book was another psalter: Richard Allison’s Psalmes of David in Meter. This is a beautiful collection of music in “table-book” format, so that the musicians and singers could sit around the book and sing or play from different ends. These are quite elaborate, with 4 voices, and lute and cittern tablature.

It might seem strange to find such a book in the posession of the Separatists, but they were known at the time for combining instruments and voices, and enjoying music:

John Taylor relates in his Threefold Discourse (1642), how the founder of the Separatists “was a singular good Lutenist, and he made his Son Timothy usually on Sundays bring his Viol to Church and play the Base to the Psalmes that were sung, so far was he…from being an enemy to Church Musicke.” 

The final music book was Richard Johnsons Golden Garland of Princely Pleasures and Delicate Delights a collection of popular songs. There is great variety in this, from historical ballads telling of the purported grisly deeds of Richard III, or the death of Lady Jane Grey, to moral songs, and the exquisite lutesongs of John Dowland and Thomas Ford.

For the others on board, there are sailors’ songs, and rounds, and other music for mariners;

And for the merchants, we have a selection of songs and dances to tell of some of the wonders that they hoped to find in the New World, and, of course, tobacco: we have a song about Kawasha, the god of tobacco, from a masque of 1614 where he “had on his head a Night-cap of red cloth of gold, close to his skull, tied vnder his chin, two holes cut in the toppe, out of which his eares appeared, hung with two great Pendants, on the crowne of his Cappe a Chimney, a glasse chaine about his necke, his body and legges of Oliue-colour stuffe, made close like the skinne, bases of Tobacco-colour stuffe cut like Tobacco leaues, sprinkled with orcedure, in his hand an Indian Bow and Arrowes….The Sergeant of Kawasha carried on his shoulder a great Tobacco Pipe, as bigge as a Caliuer.” The health giving properties of tobacco are also enumerated in other songs…

The programme includes music by: Richard Allison, Louis Bourgeois, Thomas Campion, John Dowland, Thomas Ford and Tobias Hume.

It will be a rich and varied programme, and one that is exciting for us, as we believe that much of the material in William Brewster’s music books has not been transcribed or performed since the 17th Century. We hope that this recording will bring a new insight into the musical soundscape of the Mayflower.

Although we have received grants to cover much of our costs, we still need to raise more money to make this project a reality. We would be very grateful for any help that you can give us! Click here to learn more.

Hear ye! One thought — so far — on “‘They that in Ships unto the Sea down go: Music for the Mayflower’: A Guest Post by Tamsin Lewis of Passamezzo”:

  1. Claire

    Wonderful project! Music from history is a great way to relive days gone by, and re-creating a soundscape of the Mayflower, like you describe, gives such a helpful connection to the past.


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