Music: Patriotic and Political

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Music: Patriotic and Political

American patriotic music in the Revolutionary and Federal periods was heavily influenced by the presence of traditional British military bands during the colonial era. Besides the small squads of fifers and drummers that the British army used for signaling troop movements and duties, separate regimental bands were often subsidized by officers for concerts and entertainment. These bands consisted of wind instruments such as bassoons, clarinets, oboes, and horns and played more sophisticated music than the fife and drum corps. American musicians were familiar with, and influenced by, these bands in their midst. For example, Timothy Swan of Connecticut, one of New England's late-eighteenth-century composers of psalmody, was said to have learned to read music from a British fifer. The outbreak of hostilities between England and the American colonies in early 1775 prompted the establishment of similar bands attached to colonial troops, but only six American regiments had bands. The musicians attached to the Fourth Regiment of Continental Artillery from Pennsylvania, one of the best of the bands, entertained General Washington on his birthday in 1778 at Valley Forge. The move toward independence also elicited the first nationalist tunes such as the instrumental march, "The Road to Boston."

Parody played a large part in Revolutionary-era American song writing as well-known British patriotic tunes were given lyrics that turned their original meaning on its head. The traditional text of "The British Grenadiers" compared these English shock troops with Alexander the Great and Hercules. The American version to the familiar tune, "A Song on Liberty," is attributed to Boston Patriot Joseph Warren, who died in 1775 at Bunker Hill:

Proud Albion bow'd to Caesar,
And numerous lords before,
To Picts, to Danes, to Normans,
And many master more;
But we can boast Americans
Have never fall'n prey,
Huzza! huzza! huzza! huzza!
For free America.

"The Liberty Song," written by John Dickinson of Pennsylvania in 1768, took its melody from the English "Heart of Oak," written by London actor David Garrick in 1759 to celebrate victories over the French in the Seven Years' War (1756–1763). Dickinson's lyrics stopped short of advocating open conflict but reflected the confrontational spirit engendered by the Townshend Acts:

Come join hand in hand, brave Americans all,
And rouse your bold hearts at fair liberty's call;
No tyrannous acts shall suppress your just claim
Or stain with dishonor America's name.

In a musical repartee, annoyed British soldiers stationed in Boston countered with "Parody upon a Well-known Liberty Song—Come Shake Your Dull Noddles," printed by the Boston Gazette later in 1768:

Come shake your dull Noddles,
Ye pumpkins and bawl,
And own that you're mad at fair Liberty's Call;
No scandalous Conduct can add to your Shame,
Condemn'd to Dishonor
Inherit the fame.

"Yankee Doodle," a British lampoon of American soldiers that probably dated from the Seven Years' War, had many textual variants that strayed from patriotic fervor into bawdy camp commentary. It was updated for the American rebellion when it was printed in England in 1780 as "Yankee Doodle, or (as now Christened by the Saints of New England) The Lexington March" and had instructions for "The Words to be Sung thro' the Nose…" in imitation of an American accent.

Singing sacred music in this period was a prevalent pastime and a few patriotic hymns became popular. William Billings's "Lamentation Over Boston," published in 1778, connected the Patriot cause with religious enthusiasm and, specifically, the 137th Psalm:

By the Rivers of Watertown we sat down and wept,
when we remember'd thee, O Boston.
As for our Friends, Lord God of Heaven,
preserve them, defend them, deliver and restore them unto us.

Billings's "Chester" became the spontaneous anthem of American troops when he rewrote the text for one of his own hymns with words of martial inspiration:

Let tyrants shake their iron rod,
And Slav'ry clank her galling chains,
We fear them not, we trust in God,
New-England's God for ever reigns.

The years immediately after the war brought new verses that celebrated the new nation and its heroes, either with new music or older melodies, but no longer relied on parody. New England composer Abraham Wood's "Hymn on Peace" encouraged turning "swords to plowshares" while praising God for the success of the American cause. The expanded notion of individual rights was underscored by "The Rights of Woman," printed in Providence in 1793:

Woman aloud rejoice exalt to thy feeble voice in cheerful strain.
Let woman have a share, nor yield to slavish fear
Her equal rights declare and well maintain.

The near deification of General Washington even before he became the first president found expression in music. Two popular songs were "Washington's March" and "He Comes, the Hero Comes!," celebrating Washington's return to New York in 1783. Philip Phile, a former Hessian soldier who led the pit orchestra in Philadelphia's theater in the late 1780s, wrote "The President's March" in 1789. Possibly played at Washington's first inauguration, the tune was very popular, and when Joseph Hopkinson wrote lyrics for it in 1798, it became "Hail! Columbia," America's unofficial national anthem for most of the nineteenth century. Other paeans to American ideals came from theater musicians, such as Alexander Reinagle's "America, Commerce, and Freedom," written in Philadelphia in 1794. The death of Washington in 1799 prompted the publication of memorials. "Funeral Dirge" by I. Decker was played by the Alexandria Band at his funeral, while "Funeral Dirge on the Death of General Washington" by Peter Von Hagen was played at the Stone Chapel in Boston.

By the mid-1790s political divisions between Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans were finding expression in song. "Hail! Columbia" originated as a stridently pro-Adams, anti-French exhortation to present a united national front:

Firm—United—Let us be,
Rallying 'round our Liberty
As a band of brothers joined,
Peace and Safety shall we find.

"Ode on Science," written by Deacon Janaziah in 1798 and a very popular tune during the nineteenth century, tried to find a middle ground in resisting both British and French threats to American sovereignty:

The British yoke, the Gallic chain,
Was urged upon our necks in vain,
All haughty tyrants we disdain,
And shout, Long live America.

Other composers tried to appeal to followers of both of the emerging parties with medleys that switched back and forth in allegiance. Perhaps the best-known is Benjamin Carr's "Federal Overture," presented in New York in 1794, which included "Marseilles," "Ca Ira" (both Republican, Francophile anthems), "O Dear What Can the Matter Be"(a comment on the current political strife) "Rose Tree," "Carmagnole," "President's March," and "Yankee Doodle" (the last two were Federalist favorites). Band leader Carr was rewarded for his lighthearted attempt at inclusion with a near riot and physical assault.

Musical political invective only became sharper with Jefferson's presidency. Set to a martial tune, "Jefferson and Liberty," a response to the earlier "Adams and Liberty," was a celebration of the overthrow of the Federalists. The first two lines refer to the Alien and Sedition Acts and the rest of the Federalist national security panic of 1798–1800:

The gloomy night before us flies, the reign of Terror now is o'er,
Gags, Inquisitors and Spies, its herds of Harpies are no more.
Rejoice! Columbia's Sons, rejoice! To tyrants never bend the knee,
But join with heart and soul and voice, for Jefferson and Liberty.

The War of 1812 brought a reappearance of anti-British compositions. Francis Scott Key's "The Star-Spangled Banner" was written in 1814 using the melody from "To Anacreon in Heaven," an old British drinking song, but did not become the official national anthem until 1931. Andrew Jackson's victory in New Orleans in 1815 added lyrics and a fiddle melody to American folk music; "The 8th of January," or "The Battle of New Orleans," became a hit song for early rock-and-roller Johnny Horton in the 1950s. Humorous, satirical songs flourished during the presidential campaign of Andrew Jackson, a new brand of politician. In 1822 supporters of Jackson's first presidential campaign sang "The Hunters of Kentucky," which reminisced about the general's victory. Opponents of his second term in office who had been put off by his autocratic style and allegations of corruption sang "King Andrew" in 1834:

King Andrew had an itching palm to finger the nation's cash;
Most of 'em thought 'twas just the thing but some thought it'd be rash
The General took his cook's advice and hurried away the Rhino;
But where it went, aye there's the rub, I'll be damn'd if you or I know.

Although patriotic songs remained steady sellers throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, electoral satire set to music became a permanent art form in American politics, even if the lyrics were by nature ephemeral.

See alsoDemocratic Republicans; Election of 1800; Election of 1824; Federalist Party; Humor; Jackson, Andrew; Jefferson, Thomas; Poetry; Satire; "Star-Spangled Banner"; Townshend Act; Washington, George .


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

Lowens, Irving. Music and Musicians in Early America. New York: Norton, 1964.

Nathans, Heather S. Early American Theatre from the Revolution to Thomas Jefferson: Into the Hands of the People. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Sonneck, Oscar G. Francis Hopkinson, the First American Poet-Composer, 1737–1791, and James Lyon, Patriot, Preacher, Psalmodist, 1735–1794. New York: Da Capo Press, 1967.

Discography and Liner Notes

George Washington, Music for the First President. David and Ginger Hildebrand. Liner notes by David Hildebrand. Hildebrand CD 105, 1999.

Liberty Tree. The Boston Camerata with Joel Cohen. Liner notes by Joel Cohen. Erato CD 3984-21668-2, 1998.

Music of the American Revolution: The Birth of Liberty. The American Fife Ensemble and the Liberty Tree Wind Players. Liner notes by Richard Crawford. New World Records CD 80276-2, 1996.

Music of the Federal Era. The Federal Music Society. Liner notes by Richard Crawford. New World Records CD 80299-2, 1994.

Tippecanoe and Tyler Too: A Collection of American Political Marches, Songs, and Dirges. The Chestnut Brass Company and Friends. Liner notes by Jay Krush. Newport Classic Premier NPD 85548, 1992.

Peter Leavenworth

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Music: Patriotic and Political

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