Sunday, October 10, 2010

Early American Patriotic Song

pic from
As America was nearing a Revolutionary War, it was eager to remove itself from England in every possible way. Music was one of the easiest ways to do this. American composers, like William Billings, had already been attempting to establish a national sound in art music by shunning established rules and creating a new sound. However, not all English tradition was discarded when American lyricists began to write distinctly patriotic words to fit with popular English tunes; a sarcastic kick in the face to England and one that was not missed. The English would often reply with new lyrics to answer and a battle of musical wits began.

Listening: Reviews:

The Liberty Song (Dickinson), CD1, #6 from Recordings for An Introduction to America's Music

One of the first patriotic songs to gain popularity was The Liberty Song with words written by John Dickinson in 1768.The words were sung to the tune of Heart of Oak, which was the British Royal Navy's anthem. Dickinson wrote the words in response to another round of taxes being levied against the colonies by Britain.

Dickinson may have written the piece in response to recent events, but a quick comparison of the lyrics of his song against the original lyrics of Heart of Oak written by Boyce will show that he also incorporated a reaction to them as well:

Heart of Oak                                                         The Liberty Song
Come cheer up, my lads! 'tis to glory we steer,          Come, join hand in hand, brave Americans all,
To add something more to this wonderful year;                    And rouse your bold hearts at fair Liberty's call
To honour we call you, not press you like slaves,                No tyrannous acts shall suppress your just claim,
For who are so free as the sons of the waves?                      Or stain with dishonor America's name

Heart of oak are our ships, heart of oak are our men;              In Freedom we're born and in Freedom we'll live.
We always are ready, steady, boys, steady!                         Our purses are ready. Steady, friends, steady;
We'll fight and we'll conquer again and again.                      Not as slaves, but as Freemen our money we'll give.

Dickinson seems to playing off of the original lyrics in referencing the idea of freemen and slaves and he makes a nice turn of the phrase "steady, boys, steady" by changing "boys" to "friends" which shows a deeper feeling of unity, as well as a sense of choice as opposed to duty.

The song is in a two-part form with a verse and a chorus in between. Often the verses would be sung by a leader(s) and the repeated chorus sung by a group of voices in unison in response to each changing verse. The song has no instrumental accompaniment. Although the song is sung in a steady rhythm, most likely left over from the original tune's use for heaving on the sea, it was most likely sung in a bar or tavern to rouse the spirits and gather like-minded men together. This could be an easy way for those who were revolution supporters to find others who felt the same quickly by starting up a chorus of the song to see who would join in.

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