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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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Mystery of “Sir Jack Brag”

In a comment on yesterday’s posting, Sean Kelleher brought up another alleged nickname for Gen. John Burgoyne: “Sir Jack Brag.” How far back does that go?

The nickname appears in print for the first time in late 1842, in an issue of Graham's Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine. The editor closed an issue with an article called “The Minstrelsy of the Revolution,” collecting a bunch of songs and humorous poems on Revolutionary subjects. That article said:
Burgoyne, more frequently than any other British officer, was the butt of the continental wits. His verses were parodied, his amours celebrated in songs of the mess-table, and his boasts and the weaker points in his nature caricatured in ballads and petite comedies. We obtained a manuscript copy of the song from which the following verses are quoted, from an octogenarian Vermonter who, with the feeble frame, shrill voice and silvered locks of eighty-seven, would give the echoing chorus with as much enthusiasm as when he joined in it with his camp-companions more than half a century ago.


Said Burgoyne to his men, as they pass’d in review,
Tullalo, tullalo, tullalo, boys!
These rebels their course very quickly will rue,
And fly as the leaves ’fore the autumn tempest flew,
When him who is your leader they know, boys!
They with men have now to deal,
And we soon will make them feel—
Tullalo, tullalo, tullalo, boys!
That a loyal Briton’s arm and a loyal Briton’s steel
Can put to flight a rebel as quick as other foe, boys!
Tullalo, tullalo, tullalo—
Tullalo,tullalo, tullalo-o-o-o, boys!

As to Sa-ra-tog’ he came, thinking how to jo the game,
Tullalo, tullalo, tullalo, boys!
He began to see the grubs, in the branches of his fame,
He began to have the trembles lest a flash should be the flame,
For which he had agreed his perfume to forego, boys!
No lack of skill, but fates,
Shall make us yield to GATES,
Tullalo, tullalo, tullalo, boys!
The devils may have leagued, as you know, with the States,
But we never will be beat by any mortal foe, boys!
Tullalo, tullalo, tullalo—
Tullalo, tullalo, tullalo-o-o-o, boys!

We believe the “Progress of Sir Jack Brag” has never been printed. The only clue to its authorship with which we are acquainted is the signature, “G. of H.” It was probably written soon after the defeat of its hero at Saratoga.
The editor of that magazine was Vermont native Rufus Wilmot Griswold. In 1844 he reprinted the article under his name as part of “Curiosities of American Literature,” a supplement to a British book called Curiosities of Literature, by I. C. D’Israeli.

By the time Griswold published that song, however, the British novelist Theodore Hook had created a character named “Jack Brag.” His 1837 novel was about a social climber in London. According to a biography of Hook, he based this character on a contemporary acquaintance—which means Burgoyne wasn’t involved.

So one possibility is that the name “Jack Brag” was invented twice, once by Americans lampooning their British enemy and again by a British author lampooning socially ambitious countrymen. Another possibility is that the “Sir Jack Brag” nickname for Burgoyne was known widely enough for it to reach Hook’s ears, and he recycled it for his character. Finally there’s the possibility that Griswold or his informant attached the name of a recent British novel to the words of an old song (whose surviving lyrics don’t include the phrase “Sir Jack Brag”).

I think the song itself is authentic. Like a lot of eighteenth-century satires, it’s written in the voice of the person being caricatured so that he comes across as boastful and (since these lines were probably indeed written after Saratoga) ironically doomed. The result is an American propaganda song that suggests “The devils may have leagued, as you know, with the States”—an odd thing for an American veteran to sing with so much enthusiasm.


Mr Punch said...

"An odd thing" - yes, but people don't necessarily pay much attention to lyrics; that's why you hear "I Will Always Love You," a breakup song, at wedding receptions.

J. L. Bell said...

Well, we don’t pay attention to lyrics now. At one of my proms the theme song was “We’ve Got Tonight,” and Ronald Reagan’s reelection rallies rocked to “Born in the U.S.A.”

But that’s recorded music, which we can let wash over us. This was back when people actually had to sing the song if they wanted to hear it, and it would have been much harder to ignore the lyrics.

Indeed, these lyrics require people to (a) recognize the historical references, (b) understand that the Burgoyne character's boasting will come to nothing, and (c) appreciate the irony.