Born: Ju­ly 23, 1758, Wor­ces­ter, Mas­sa­chu­setts.

Died: Ju­ly 23, 1842, Suf­field, Con­nec­ti­cut (died on his birth­day).

Buried: Cen­ter Ce­me­te­ry, North­field, Mas­sa­chu­setts.



Swan was of Scot­tish des­cent, the son of gold­smith Will­iam Swan and La­vin­ia Keyes, and hus­band of Mary Gay, daugh­ter of Eb­en­ezer Gay, third min­is­ter of the First Con­gre­ga­tion­al Church of Suf­field (mar­ried 1784). Sev­er­al of his ten child­ren with Ma­ry were mu­si­cians like their fa­ther.

One of the ear­ly Am­eri­can psalm­o­dists, lit­tle is known of Swan’s ear­ly years. He lived in Wor­ces­ter un­til his fa­ther’s death in 1774.

He lat­er moved to Gro­ton, Mas­sa­chu­setts, to live with his old­er bro­ther, Will­iam, whose ac­tive in­ter­est in mu­sic may have in­flu­enced him.

Shortly af­ter ar­riv­ing in Gro­ton, Swan en­rolled in a sing­ing school taught by a Mr. Gross. This ex­pe­ri­ence was prob­ab­ly the on­ly for­mal mu­sic­al train­ing Swan ev­er had.

In 1774, Swan left Gro­ton to en­list in the Con­ti­nent­al Ar­my in Cambridge, Mas­sa­chu­setts. It was here he learned to play fife un­der the tu­te­lage of a Brit­ish fif­er.

In 1775, a lit­tle less than a year aft­er en­list­ing, Swan moved to North­field, Mas­sa­chu­setts. There he be­came ap­pren­ticed as a hat­ter with his bro­ther-in-law, Ca­leb Ly­man.

In North­field, Swan’s at­ten­tion be­came fo­cused on mu­sic­al com­po­sition. His first tune, Mon­ta­gue, can be placed around 1774 when Swan was 16 years old.

After com­plet­ing his ap­prent­ice­ship in 1780, Swan moved to Ent­field, Con­nec­ti­cut, then to Suf­field, Con­nec­ti­cut, in 1782. It was in Suf­field that Swan com­posed most of his mu­sic.

Supplementing his work as a hat­ter, Swan be­gan teach­ing singing schools in the area. It was dur­ing this time his mu­sic was first print­ed. In 1783 com­pos­er-com­pil­er Ol­iv­er Brown­son in­clud­ed six of Swan’s tunes in the third is­sue of Se­lect Har­mo­ny.

This was fol­lowed by re­quests from oth­er com­pil­ers and pub­lish­ers to in­clude Swan’s tunes in their tune books and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions.

By 1800, his tunes were be­ing print­ed in New York, Vir­gin­ia, New Hamp­shire, Penn­syl­van­ia, Ma­ry­land, Mas­sa­chu­setts, and Con­nec­ti­cut. This rise in in­ter­est in his mu­sic prompt­ed Swan to pub­lish his mu­sic him­self. Col­la­bo­rat­ing with Al­ex­an­der Ely, Swan pub­lished The Song­ster’s As­sist­ant around 1786. The book was a Col­lect­ion of se­cu­lar du­ets, to which Swan con­trib­ut­ed half of the songs.

In 1801, Swan pub­lished the New Eng­land Ha­rm­ony. Un­like The Song­ster’s As­sist­ant, it was a Col­lect­ion of sac­red works, with ov­er 104 pag­es of orig­in­al mu­sic. The Col­lect­ion con­tained ma­ny tunes that had been pre­vi­ous­ly print­ed, in­clud­ing his first tune, Mon­ta­gue. How­ev­er, the book was not well re­ceived, and Swan did not pub­lish an­oth­er Col­lect­ion af­ter 1801.

Even though his book did not do well, Swan’s mu­sic was still in de­mand, and was pub­lished lat­er by oth­er com­pil­ers. Af­ter pub­lish­ing the New Eng­land Har­mo­ny, Swan moved to Ver­mont, then to Nort­hfield, Mas­sa­chu­setts.

In Oc­to­ber 1807, 25 years aft­er set­tling in Suf­field, Swan and his fa­mi­ly moved back to the town of his child­hood, pos­si­bly due to his mo­ther’s fail­ing health. She died six years lat­er in 1813. Up­on re­turn­ing to North­field, Swan went in­to the mil­lin­e­ry bu­si­ness with his ne­phew, Jo­si­ah Dwight Ly­man.

Swan con­tinued to com­pose mu­sic and re­ceive re­quests from com­pil­ers seek­ing to pur­chase rights to some of his more po­pu­lar tunes.