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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Monday, January 15, 2018

“Hearts of oak are we still”

In 1759 the British Empire enjoyed a string of military victories, including the Royal Navy’s triumph over the French in the Battle of Quiberon Bay.

At the end of that year the theatrical star and empresario David Garrick celebrated those wins in a new show titled Harlequin’s Invasion: A Christmas Gambol. The play featured a bunch of British clowns, some outrageous French stereotypes, and the pantomime hero Harlequin speaking for the first time.

In the story, Harlequin tries to get into Parnassus but doesn’t come up to the standard of Garrick’s hero, Shakespeare. A handwritten script is in the collection of the Boston Public Library.

Among the play’s new songs was one that Garrick composed with William Boyce (1710-1779, shown above), sometimes referred to as Dr. Boyce since he received an honorary doctorate in music from Cambridge in 1749. That song was known as either “Come, Cheer Up, My Lads” for its first line or “Heart of Oak” for its chorus.

It begins:
Come, cheer up, my lads, ’tis to glory we steer,
To add something more to this wonderful year;
To honour we call you, as freemen not slaves,
For who are so free as the sons of the waves?

Chorus:
Heart of Oak are our ships,
Jolly Tars are our men,
We always are ready: Steady, boys, Steady!
We’ll fight and we’ll conquer again and again.
As “Heart of Oak” this tune eventually became the anthem of the Royal Navy. It was soon published in Britain’s American colonies and became a popular patriotic singalong.

On 3 April 1766 those colonies were celebrating the repeal of the Stamp Act and a new ministry in London. The Pennsylvania Journal published new lyrics to “Heart of Oak” supplied by “S.P.R.” They began:
Sure never was picture drawn more to the life
Or affectionate husband more fond of his wife,
Than AMERICA copies and loves BRITAINS sons,
Who, conscious of freedom, are bold as great guns.

Chorus:
Hearts of oak are we still,
for we’re sons of those men,
Who always are ready, steady, boys, steady,
To fight for their FREEDOM again and again.

Tho’ we feast and grow fat on America’s soil,
Yet we own ourselves subjects of Britain’s fair isle.
And who’s so absurd to deny us the name?
Since true British blood flows in ev’ry vein.
“S.P.R.” asked “the Sons of Liberty in the several American provinces to sing it with all the spirit of patriotism.” The lyrics were reprinted as far north as Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and as far south as Williamsburg, Virginia.

TOMORROW: The more famous American rewrite of “Heart of Oak.”

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