J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Dr. Joseph Warren Rewrites "The British Grenadiers"

In June 1769, Josiah Flagg (1738-95) advertised the last musical concert of his season at Boston’s Concert Hall. It featured a small orchestra made up of local musicians and men drawn from the army’s 29th and 64th Regiments. The evening closed with the song “The British Grenadiers,” arranged for four voices, with the audience probably singing along:

Some talk of Alexander, and some of Hercules
Of Hector and Lysander, and such great names as these.
But of all the world’s great heroes, there’s none that can compare.
With a tow, row, row, row, row, row, to the British Grenadiers.

Those heroes of antiquity ne'er saw a cannon ball,
Or knew the force of powder to slay their foes withal.
But our brave boys do know it, and banish all their fears,
Sing tow, row, row, row, row, row, for the British Grenadiers.

Whene’er we are commanded to storm the palisades,
Our leaders march with fusees, and we with hand grenades.
We throw them from the glacis, about the enemies’ ears.
Sing tow, row, row, row, row, row, for the British Grenadiers.
The next February, Flagg advertised that his concert would include “The New Massachusetts Liberty Song.” The title of that song was clearly inspired by the popular “Liberty Song,” written by Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson to the traditional melody “Heart(s) of Oak.” As for the music—well, “The New Massachusetts Liberty Song” would have sounded quite familiar to Flagg’s audience.
That Seat of Science Athens, and Earth’s great Mistress Rome,
Where now are all their Glories, we scarce can find their Tomb;
Then guard your Rights, Americans! nor stoop to lawless Sway,
Oppose, oppose, oppose, oppose,—my brave America.

Proud Albion bow’d to Caesar, and num’rous Lords before,
To Picts, to Danes, to Normans, and many Masters more;
But we can boast Americans! we never fell a Prey;
Huzza, huzza, huzza, huzza, for brave America.

We led fair Freedom hither, when lo the Desart smil’d,
A paradise of pleasure, was open’d in the Wild;
Your Harvest, bold Americans! no power shall snatch away,
Huzza, huzza, huzza, huzza, for brave America.

Torn from a World of Tyrants, beneath this western Sky,
We form’d a new Dominion, a Land of liberty;
The World shall own their masters here, then hasten on the Day,
Huzza, huzza, huzza, huzza, for brave America.

God bless this maiden Climate, and thro’ her vast Domain,
Let Hosts of Heroes cluster, who scorn to wear a Chain;
And blast the venal Sycophant, who dares our Rights betray.
Preserve, preserve, preserve, preserve my brave America.

Lift up your Heads my Heroes! and swear with proud Disdain,
The Wretch that would enslave you, Shall spread his Snares in vain;
Should Europe empty all her force, wou'd meet them in Array,
And shout, and shout, and shout, and shout, for brave America!

Some future Day shall crown us, the Masters of the Main,
And giving Laws and Freedom, to subject France and Spain;
When all the Isles o’er Ocean spread shall tremble and obey,
Their Lords, their Lords, their Lords, their Lords of brave America.
Tradition credits Dr. Joseph Warren with this lyrical rewrite, though there doesn’t seem to be firm evidence for that. Less than month after the song’s premiere, actual British grenadiers fired into a violent crowd on King Street—the event known as the Boston Massacre. That no doubt increased the local popularity of the new lyrics over the old.

You can hear the “British Grenadiers”/“New Massachusetts Liberty Song” music at Contemplator.org—but don't touch that link yet! It's one of those sites that starts making noise as soon as you peek in. With RealAudio you can also download and hear a fully orchestrated version from Canada’s Virtual Gramophone.


Robert S. Paul said...

This is my favorite "period" song. Thank you! I actually learned to play it on guitar, it's awesome. I really should record that some day.

I think it's actually more fitting for a national anthem, or could have been, anyway. Far less violent, and much closer to what formed us as a nation than bombs blowing up and rockets going off.

mta said...

The Patriot burlesque is included on "Music of the American Revolution: The Birth of Liberty," under the name "Song On Libety." Though best for buffs, this is a fun recording in general. (Check out, for example, the lively taunts in "The King's Own Regulars.")


Link: (Sorry, I don't know how to do this invisibly.)


J. L. Bell said...

As a potential national anthem, "The New Massachusetts Liberty Song" suffers from a major historical error: the notion that America was a "Desart," an open land "in the Wild," with a "maiden Climate."

North America was, we now acknowledge, a populated continent with agriculture, trade, and (in some regions) large-scale architecture.

Warren and the American Whigs felt they deserved self-government not simply because they were British but because they had built their society from nothing—ignoring how their forebears had taken advantage of fields cleared by Natives, Native expertise in agriculture, trade with Natives, and investment from Europe.

Then there's the way the song's lyrics insult nearly every ethnic group in western Europe.

But probably the biggest obstacle to more people adopting this rousing tune is having to explain to every smart-aleck eight-year-old in America why it rhymes "sky" with "liberty" and "day" with "America"!

J. L. Bell said...

See this posting for a clickable link to the CD that mta enjoys.

J. L. Bell said...

In 2018, more than ten years after this posting, I shared new research into this song and who wrote it, starting here.