Music and the Revolution

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During the Revolution, American patriots, loyalists, and British occupants alike heard, performed, and enjoyed a wide variety of music. While the period is often remembered mainly for its political and military events, music animated many pursuits of daily life, even during the disruption of war. At a militia muster, young fifers and drummers stirred the morning air, while trained wind bands accompanied the Continental Army on the move with a brisk march. By night, army bands played elegant minuets and country dances for the entertainment of officers, while talented slaves and freemen alike accompanied frequent civilian balls that provided important social intercourse. Newly popular choirs and singing school youths sang sacred psalm settings and anthems in church, while sailors and soldiers sang war songs and bawdy ballad tunes at the tavern table. At home, an educated elite performed art songs for private parlor audiences, while public instrumental and vocal concert programs reflected the latest from London in the world of George III. Despite lingering local laws against the sin and expense of theatrical productions, the public still found means to enjoy a lengthy evening of favorite British ballad operas and light comic operas, sometimes as "lecture" readings in place of banned performances. New American public celebrations, for the Fourth of July, Washington's birthday, and the like, came to life with festive songs set to popular music of the day, afterward widely distributed through quick newspaper and broadside publication. Indeed, fledgling government and military leaders understood the importance of music, its prevalence, and its unique power to rally the troops. Richard Peters, Secretary to the Board of War, wrote in 1779: "I wish often to see ballads dispersed among the soldiery, which, inspiring in them a thirst for glory, patience under their hardships, a love of their General, and submission to their officers, would animate them to a cheerful discharge of their duty, and prompt them to undergo their hardships with a soldierly patience and pleasure" (Anderson, p. x).

revolutionary songs

Songs and ballads of the Revolution formed perhaps the most accessible, influential, and lasting type of music from the period. Their texts told a story, often inspired by current events like a recent battle and infused with a political message. While some songs indeed died a quiet death, with inferior texts wedded to events of passing interest, a few remained wildly popular over time. Amateur poets of the educated elite were usually the authors responsible for their quick creation and publication. They were not composers of the music, however. Adopting a simple technique common to colonial culture in British North America, poets set their newly composed verses to preexisting tunes known by the public. An array of familiar British songs and marching tunes, many of folk origin or derived from eighteenth-century theater and pleasure-garden entertainments, supplied an ever-ready source of these melodies. Especially popular were tunes from British nationalistic songs that in their original texts extolled the might of king, army, and especially the proud royal navy that ruled the seas and defended the treasured rights and liberties of British citizens against despotic foes. Like their British counterparts, most printed versions of new American songs provided texts only without music, making it sadly impossible to recreate the full repertoire of Revolutionary song.

Some of the tunes American authors chose were so widely known and popular that they were applied repeatedly to different texts. Such was the case, for example, with our first truly American patriotic song—John Dickinson's "Liberty Song" of 1768, a pre-Revolutionary critique of the Townshend duties (a set of import taxes) imposed by Parliament. Set to the tune "Hearts of Oak," a rousing theater song by William Boyce praising British ships and sailors, the "Liberty Song" applied the patriotic sentiment of the original song to America's own new cause. It was quickly parodied by Tory critics and, in response, by another patriot author.

After the outbreak of hostilities, the first actual war song to spread like wildfire throughout the colonies was "War and Washington" (May 1775), which set words by New Hampshire lawyer Jonathan Mitchell Sewall to "British Grenadiers." The original song celebrated the earlier exploits of that same elite branch of the British army that helped provoke the first bloodshed at Lexington and Concord a month before. The deliberate irony of setting new words in praise of General Washington to this tune thus enhanced its boldly patriotic effect. This, no doubt, was the war song heard "at every Continental camp-fire," and the one that "led the gallant soldier on to battle, and returned him from the field of victory triumphant in deathless verse." Also noteworthy was an independence song composed by Sewall in 1776 (tune unspecified), which was among the earliest of any to point the finger beyond bungling ministers at King George III himself as troublesome tyrant: "George the Third, of Great Britain, no more shall he reign, / With unlimited sway o'er these free States again" (Spicer, pp. 20–22).


In November of 1773, a group of Boston men disguised as Mohawks in Indian war paint boarded and dumped 342 chests of tea overboard to protest the Tea Act that placed a three pence per pound tax on all Dutch tea exported to America. "Revolutionary Tea" celebrates this famous anti-tax protest for which the rallying cry was "No taxation without representation."

There was an old lady lived over the sea,
And she was an Island Queen.
Her daughter lived off in a new country,
With an ocean of water between.
The old lady's pockets were filled up with gold;
But never contented she.
So she called on her daughter to pay a tax
Of three pence a pound on the tea.
Of three pence a pound on the tea.

"Now mother, dear mother," the daughter replied
"I shan't do the thing that you ax;
I'm willing to pay a fair price for the tea,
But never a three-penny tax."
"You shall," quoth the mother, and reddened with rage,
"For you're my own daughter, you see.
And sure 'tis quite proper the daughter should pay
Her mother a tax on the tea,
Her mother a tax on the tea."

And so the old lady her servant called up,
And packed off a budget of tea.
And eager for three pence a pound, she put in
Enough for a large family.
She ordered her servant to bring home the tax,
Declaring her child should obey,
Or old as she was, and a woman most grown,
She'd half whip her life away,
She'd half whip her life away.

The tea was conveyed to the daughter's front door,
All down by the ocean side,
But the bouncing poured out every pound
In the dark and the boiling tide.
And then she called out to the Island Queen,
"Oh mother, dear mother," quoth she,
"Your tea you may have when it is steeped enough,
But never a tax from me,
But never a tax from me."

source: Silverman, Jerry Of Thee I Sing: Lyrics and Music for America's Most Patriotic Songs, Citadel Press, 2002.

"Yankee Doodle" and "Chester," songs of different origins that preceded the Revolution, were the two most closely associated with the patriot cause. Eventually they became the signature songs of the marching army. First referenced in 1767, "Yankee Doodle" derives from a complex folk history that, despite much research and speculation by music historians, is still not fully understood. Before the war, the tune was used by the British in deliberate derision of country-bumpkin colonists, while changing the guard within earshot of Boston Sunday church meetings, for example. After war began, Americans usurped the tune as their own and turned its significance on end. It then became associated with an explosion of new texts, as Americans enjoyed using the jaunty tune more than any other in the creation of further patriotic song; both sides found the tune a fitting vehicle for mocking the other's misfortunes. At the 1781 Yorktown surrender, in fact, it was because Lafayette requested soldiers of the defeated British light infantry to strike up the hated "Yankee Doodle" that many broke their arms upon the ground with bitter rage. The words most commonly associated with the tune, including the rhyme of "pony" with "macaroni," did not appear until 1842.

"Chester" appeared in the first publication of sacred music all by an American composer, The New-England Psalm-Singer (1770) by William Billings, an eccentric Boston leather tanner. Though musically untrained, Billings became a passionate and prolific composer of original music for the singing school, a thriving social as well as musical institution especially popular with young adults. The music Billings composed took several different forms, from straightforward hymnlike settings to more complex anthems. The several verses of "Chester" are set simply in four voices, with the tune in the tenor rather than in the top voice, as is now customary. Eight years later it reappeared in a second publication by Billings (The Singing Master's Assistant, 1778) with new verses added to reflect recent events of the war.

military music

During the Revolution Americans also heard the strains of military band music, but not like that we hear today. The instruments, the ensembles, and the music they played were all different than those that evolved after the 1830s, and all were directly patterned after contemporary British models. In particular, two entirely separate groups of musicians accompanied the British army by the time occupying forces arrived in Boston in 1768. These included not only the all-important field musicians—the more familiar fifers and drummers who gave the critical signals telling the troops what to do from battle to bedtime—but also a few very fine bands of musicians. These were not the brass bands of the nineteenth century, nor the larger mixed ensembles of today, but rather small wind octets of paired oboes, clarinets, horns, and bassoons. The officers whom they served organized and paid for the bands for ceremonial, concert, and dance entertainment. Before the war, Bostonians objected to offensive performances by British field musicians; but they hired and took great pleasure in the musical refinements of British bands, which gave regular concerts between 1769 and 1774.

When the American Continental Army was formed, it organized both field musicians and bands exactly in the British tradition. Washington ultimately appointed John Hiwell as Inspector and Superintendent of Music to train and maintain the quality of his field musicians. Hiwell also continued to direct one of several fine bands that formed during the war, with duties ranging from morning parade to evening entertainment, even during the worst winters at Valley Forge and Morristown.

Though very few American military instruments from the Revolution survive with reliable verification, a number of manuscript music books for fife and drum do. They show that the repertory played by both British and American army bands was essentially the same—the very march, dance, and folk tunes that inspired Revolutionary song.

Perhaps the best known tradition of military music from the Revolution is false folklore—that the British under Cornwallis marched in defeat at Yorktown to the nursery tune "The World Turned Upside Down." Schrader (1998) documents exhaustive detective work showing that this "tradition" was likely a later invention of an unreliable historian of the early nineteenth century, nevertheless repeated as accepted truth through the generations thereafter.

music in american culture and identity

Even while Americans fought and sacrificed for political independence from Britain, their musical culture remained wholly dependent on British traditions throughout the war and beyond, as Americans forged a new national identity into the nineteenth century. A familiar repertory of largely British tunes continued to accompany new American public celebrations, for ratification of the Constitution, the Fourth of July, battle victories, town bicentennials, and the like.

Similarly, music played an important ceremonial role in nineteenth-century commemorations of the Revolution. New generations of Americans increasingly redefined and romanticized the Revolution during anniversary observations that first gained momentum at the 1825–1826 Jubilee and reached a peak during centennial events beginning in 1875.

Festive celebration accompanied the dedication of many new battle monuments; but there was sad ceremony, too, for the reburial of patriot remains and grand public funerals of otherwise unknown last surviving veterans. The funeral in 1854 for fifer Jonathan Harrington of Lexington, who died at age ninety-four, attracted some 5,000 people, for example. In all cases there was but modest use of wartime repertoire. Rather, an evolving musical culture after the 1820s dictated the use of Masonic song at the laying of cornerstones, the setting of commemorative texts to newly popular parlor song for solo voice, martial music for new all-brass bands in parade, and the addition of large choruses, often performing excerpts from favorite oratorios, like Handel's Judas Maccabaeus and Haydn's The Creation. In American public life today, music continues to provide powerful accompaniment. Though the popular tunes from our British colonial past are largely long gone, some of the music we still hear can trace its roots to the American Revolution.


Bowman, Kent A. Voices of Combat: A Century of Liberty and War Songs, 1765–1865. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.

Camus, Raoul. Military Music of the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1976.

Camus, Raoul. "Military Music of Colonial Boston." In Music in Colonial Massachusetts, 1630–1820, vol. I: Music in Public Places. Boston: Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1980.

Crawford, Richard. The Birth of Liberty: Music of the American Revolution. Notes to New World Records LP NW 276 (1976). Rereleased on CD as New World Records 80276–2 (1996).

Hazen, Margaret Hindle Hazen. "Songs of Revolutionary America." The New England Historical and Genealogical Register 130 (July 1976): 179–195.

Schrader, Arthur. "'The World Turned Upside Down': A Yorktown March, or Music to Surrender By." American Music 16, no. 2 (summer 1998): 180–215.

Silverman, Kenneth. A Cultural History of the American Revolution: Painting, Music, Literature and the Theatre in the Colonies and the United States from the Treaty of Paris to the Inauguration of George Washington, 1763–1789. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.

Spicer, Richard C. "Popular Song for Public Celebration in Federal Portsmouth, New Hampshire." Popular Song and Society 25, nos. 1–2 (spring/summer 2001): 1–99.

Other Resources

Anderson, Simon Vance. American Music during the War for Independence, 1775–1783. Ph.D. diss. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1965.

Song Text and Tune Sources

Anderson, Gillian B. Freedom's Voice in Poetry and Song. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1977.

Brand, Oscar. Songs of '76: A Folksinger's History of the Revolution. New York: M. Evans and Company, 1972.

Corry, Mary Jane; Keller, Kate Van Winkle; and Keller, Robert M. The Performing Arts in Colonial American Newspapers, 1690–1783: Text Database and Index (CD-ROM). New York: University Music Editions, 1997.

Dannett, Sylvia G. L. The Yankee Doodler. South Brunswick, NJ and New York: A. S. Barnes and Company, 1973.

Keller, Kate Van Winkle, ed. Giles Gibbs, Jr. His Book for the Fife. Hartford: Connecticut Historical Society, 1974.

Keller, Kate Van Winkle, and Rabson, Carolyn. The National Tune Index (microfiche). New York: University Music Editions, 1980.

Lawrence, Vera Brodsky. Music for Patriots, Politicians, and Presidents: Harmonies and Discords of the First Hundred Years. New York: Macmillan, 1975.

Moore, Frank. Songs and Ballads of the American Revolution (1856). Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1964.

Rabson, Carolyn. Songbook of the American Revolution. Peaks Island, ME: Neo Press, 1974.

Schrader, Arthur F. "Songs to Cultivate the Sensations of Freedom." In Music in Colonial Massachusetts, 1630–1820, vol. I: Music in Public Places. Boston: Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1980.

Silber, Irwin. Songs of Independence. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1973.

Richard C. Spicer

See also:Memory and Early Histories of the Revolution; The Spy: First American War Novel.