But hear, O ye swains, (’tis a tale most profane)
How all the tyrannical pow’rs,
King, Commons, and Lords, are uniting amain,
To cut down this guardian of ours;
From the east to the west, blow the trumpet to arms,
Thro’ the land let the sound of it flee,
Let the far and the near, –all unite with a cheer,
In defense of our Liberty Tree.
–from “Liberty Tree”
So huzza’d “Atlanticus” in the final lyric of a typical Revolutionary War song. “Liberty Tree” was first published in the Pennsylvania Magazine: or American Monthly Museum in July, 1775, when American colonists were poised on the brink of dreadful political speech–an unprecedented affirmation of human dignity. Atlanticus lustily joined a swelling chorus of patriots voicing their hopes and fears through music. Using a popular rhetoric, he enshrined in allegory the natural, God-given rights of self-determination and self-defense. He also dared to call King George a tyrant, bold even for the fieriest propaganda of the time. One year later he forsook his pseudonym and made even bolder to publish Common Sense under his real name–Thomas Paine.
That the movers and shakers of the Revolution–Paine, Ben Franklin, John Dickinson, Joseph Warren–applied their quills to political balladry shows the importance of music in times of war and is only slightly less interesting than the commonality of themes and techniques among the balladeers. Songs of the period are on a cusp, on the thin line separating British subject from American citizen. Published in almanacs, newspapers, magazines, and as broadsides, they document as verifiably as the Bill of Rights the intellectual and emotional intonations of a people just beginning to flex their national muscles. But songs also come from a tradition, a shared past. Paine set “Liberty Tree” to the tune of “Once the Gods of the Greeks,” a melody familiar to Britons on both sides of the ocean and one used in an earlier New England ballad entitled “A Song for the 5th of March” commemorating the Boston Massacre. To a great extent, Revolutionary War songs record a transfer of titles within a homogenous society.
Precious among the few belongings brought from the Old World to the New, songs provided cultural continuity to the early settlers, who imbibed a healthy measure of identity from the love songs, laments, chanteys, psalms, and carols they sang and the familiar tunes to which they danced and marched. Singing was usually a cappella; given the conditions of daily life, few colonists had the leisure to perform otherwise. At other times they accompanied themselves with a guitar or, if on the march, with fife and drum. The occasional organ was the centerpiece of congregational hymn singing, a tradition particularly strong in New England despite Puritan opposition, and one that became the seedbed of political ballads. Other popular instruments were the fiddle, harmonica, bagpipes, trumpet, jew’s harp, virginal, and oboe, but by and large the human voice carried the burden of musical expression. Most songs originated in the British Isles, where since the Middle Ages the foremost news medium was the broadside ballad. Printed on one side only, these long handbills retold, often sensationally, the details of a murder, a battle, a court decision, or a public gripe, and were sold as close to the scene as profitable. Frequently the “singing newspapers” indicated the “air” to which they were sung; murders were unusual, airs familiar. In the colonies the practice of singing new lyrics to old notes had the additional benefit of fostering kinship among listeners. Paine’s words were more potent and more memorable because they were set to a familiar, easily reproducible tune.
“Hearts of Oak” is a good example of how one tune served many generals. Written by Londoner William Boyce in praise of the British Navy, it was parodied in 1768 by John Dickinson’s “Liberty Song,” America’s first published patriotic music. Dickinson’s protest against Parliament’s power to tax the colonies was soon after parodied in the Boston Gazette by a wisely anonymous Loyalist as “Come Shake Your Dull Noodles.” This saucy exercise in name-calling was promptly answered in the St. James Chronicle in London with “Come Swallow Your Bumpers,” the lyrics staunchly sympathetic to the colonial cause. Following this pattern, “Rule, Britannia” became “A Federal Song,” “Derry Down” became “Castle Island Song,” “The British Grenadiers” became “Lord Cornwallis’ Surrender,” “God Save the Queen” became “God Save the Thirteen States,” and “Yankee Doodle” became “The Battle of the Kegs.” And they became others along the way as well, for in the colonies a musical battlefield emerged in the 1760’s on which quick exchanges of parody had potentially deadly effect.
Subjects other than political partisanship found expression in song, of course. Tragic loves, fond longings, foolish ventures, and heroic deeds evoked musical responses somehow more sharply poignant or savagely satirical because of war’s disruptions. Johnny gone a soldier left behind a mourning maiden; the ideologically acrobatic Vicar of Bray inspired taverns of caustic laughter. High-spirited young men declared their esprit de corps in marches, their lofty idealism in anthems, and their hale fellowship in toasts. So the full range of public and private emotions is represented in the songs of the period, despite the near-total absence of a homegrown tradition of original composition. Only the work of two men, an elegant Philadelphian and a simple Bostonian, can be said to announce the arrival of America’s native composers.
Although before 1768 Francis Hopkinson loyally sang the praises of English king and nation, he later applied his creative talents to celebrating the effects of the revolution. His “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free” (1759) is thought to be the first song written in colonial America. In 1788 he published Seven Songs for the Harpsichord or Forte Piano, notable for its dedication to George Washington and for “The Toast To Washington,” a tribute to the embodiment of American Independence. All his music bears the marks of classical training and taste, yet in their exquisite renderings they prophesy a blossoming artistic life in the backwaters of the New World.
Hopkinson’s importance in American music history is matched by that of William Billings, a Boston tradesman who promoted “fuging” in the many singing schools of the era. Billings’ dedication to a natural style flouted inherited rules of musical composition. Responding to the criticism that his arrangements were too cloyingly simple, for instance, he wrote “Jargon,” a dissonant piece complete with the sounds of braying asses, squeaking cartwheels, and squealing hogs. His critics responded by hanging two cats by their tails from the Billings Music sign on his door! In his sphere Billings was an original, and he stands with the framers of the Declaration in their unprecedented assertion of independence from traditional authority.
Atlanticus approved such bold self-sufficiency. Music’s power to raise heroes, sway opinion, assuage pain, relate history, and create identity he himself used to good effect when he exhorted those “swains” to unite with a cheer against tyrants threatening their God-given rights. His “tale most profane” enjoys a life uniquely different from related historical documents because of his singing it. Intimately, rousingly, worshipfully, painfully, convincingly, songs of the Revolutionary War trumpet the birth of the American spirit.