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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Sunday, May 13, 2007

A Parody of a Parody of a Rewrite of a Traditional Song

In a comment on yesterday’s posting, a long-time Boston 1775 reader gave a link to the Amazon page for this album: Music of the American Revolution: The Birth of Liberty. Since that link is so long, I’m not sure people will be able to see it and use it, so I’m repeating it here. And here’s a link direct from the record company, New World.

This CD contains “The New Massachusetts Liberty Song” under the title “Song on Liberty.” There are audio samples at both sites. Perhaps revealing where his political sympathies lie, the commenter referred to those lyrics as the “Patriot burlesque” on the original “British Grenadiers.” That’s certainly true as far as chronology goes, but the word “burlesque” implies some parody, and the Massachusetts rewrite is so deadly serious. The grenadiers were having much more fun to begin with.

It’s interesting to note that “The New Massachusetts Liberty Song” itself was parodied even before it was printed (or at least before any surviving printed versions). The Historical Society of Pennsylvania reportedly owns a manuscript dated April 1770 and titled “Massachusetts Liberty Song Parodized.”

Who could have made fun of such noble sentiments? Paul Revere later suspected Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., of this deed. In the same 1798 letter in which he described his ride on 18-19 April 1775, Revere wrote of Church:

He was esteemed a very capable writer, especially in verse; and as the Whig party needed every Strength, they feared, as well as courted Him. Though it was known, that some of the Liberty Songs, which We composed, were parodized by him, in favor of the British, yet none dare charge him with it.

I was a constant and critical observer of him, and I must say, that I never thought Him a man of Principle; and I doubted much in my own mind, wether He was a real Whig.
Revere had been happy to add Church’s quickly-composed verse to the bottom of at least one of the political cartoons he engraved, and left no expression of doubt about the doctor before the war. But after Church was caught in secret correspondence with the enemy in late 1775, the silversmith became suspicious.

Musically, American Whigs and Tories seem to have gone at each other like two modern rappers enjoying a marketable feud. In 1768, someone in Boston took John Dickinson’s “Liberty Song” and parodied it like this:
Come shake your dull noddles, ye pumpkins, and bawl
And own you’ve gone mad at fair Liberty’s call;
No scandalous conduct can add to your shame
Condemned to dishonor, inherit the fame,
In folly you’re born and in folly you’ll live
To madness still ready, and stupidly steady,
Not as men, but as monkeys, the tokens you give.
The first newspaper to print that parody said it came from “a garret at Castle William,” pointing the finger at the Customs Commissioners holed up in that island fort. But some people suspect Dr. Church. Ironically, some people also give Church credit for the Whigs’ answer song in the same style, called “The Parody Parodized”:
Come swallow your bumpers, ye tories, and roar
That the Sons of fair Freedom are hamper’d once more;
But know that no cut-throats our spirits can tame,
Nor a host of oppressors shall smother the flame.
In freedom we’re born, and, like sons of the brave,
Will never surrender, but swear to defend her,
And scorn to survive, if unable to save.
Everybody join in!


slskenyon said...

Wow--I usually don't work with colonial music that include lyrics--I am more on the fife and drum side of the line--but this kind of propaganda-esque behavior is extraordinarily interesting....and relevent to today.

J. L. Bell said...

I've read that many of the verses printed on broadsides in that era could be sung to popular tunes, and sometimes echoed those tunes' standard phrasing, so they might have been meant as song lyrics. That would produce an event tighter linkage of music and politics.

mta said...

Perhaps the best-known of these musical transformations is the 19th C rewriting of "God Save the King" as "My Country, 'Tis of Thee."

(By the way, both the "Liberty Song" and its parody are on that CD as well. And the unexpurgated version of Billings's Lamention Over Boston.)

Tow, row, row, row,