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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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Evolution of the “New Massachusetts Liberty Song”

In February 1770, as I’ve described, the musician Josiah Flagg and the printers Edes and Gill brought to the Boston public new lyrics to the tune of “The British Grenadiers.”

The following month, most of the soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre were British grenadiers—men in the 29th Regiment of Foot.

We might think that would make Bostonians happier about replacing lines praising the grenadiers with lines praising “brave America.” But the shooting could have had the opposite effect, rendering anything to do with the grenadiers, even a tune, less popular.

In any event, “The New Massachusetts Liberty Song” wasn’t printed again (so far as I know) until 6 Jan 1774, when Alexander Purdie and John Dixon of Williamsburg ran the verses in the “Poets Corner” section of their Virginia Gazette. They headlined it “A Song on LIBERTY, made by a Bostonian, to the Tune of The British Grenadiers.” The text wasn’t precisely what Edes and Gill had printed in 1770, but close enough that the changes might have come in the typesetting.

The 28 April New-York Journal from John Holt likewise gave “Poets Corner” space for “A Song on Liberty.” But this version (shown here) had more changes, small and large.

In the original, every verse ended with “brave America.” This version had “brave America,” “North America,” and “free America” each twice—the first time that last phrase appeared in the song. And the ending of the fourth verse changed from:
The World shall own their Masters here, then hasten on the Day,
Huzza, huzza, huzza, huzza, for brave AMERICA.
The world shall own we’re freemen here, and such will ever be,
Huzza! huzza! huzza! huzza for love and liberty.
There were other tweaks.
And blast the venal Sycophant, who dares our Rights betray,
Preserve, preserve, preserve, preserve my brave AMERICA.
And blast the venal sycophants who dare our rights betray;
Assert yourselves, yourselves, yourselves for brave America.
The awkward “And shout, and shout, and shout, and shout, for brave AMERICA” turned into “And shout huzza! huzza! huzza for brave America.”

But the biggest change occurred in the final verse. Here’s how the 1770 version ended:
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.
The song already started by reminding Britons that they had been conquered by “many Masters” while Americans had “never fell a prey.” And here it ended with the prediction that in “Some future Day” Americans would be the “Masters of the Main” with “all the ISLES”—which by implication must include the British Isles—bowing to “their lords of brave AMERICA”! That’s a remarkable public position, especially for 1770.

In the 1774 version, that verse was rewritten to make a better fit with the American Whigs’ message:
The land where freedom reigns shall still, be masters of the main,
In giving laws and freedom to subject France and Spain;
And all the isles o’er ocean spread shall tremble and obey,
The prince who rules by freedom’s laws in North America.
Americans, the song now said, still trusted King George III to uphold traditional British liberties. Who would claim anything different?

COMING UP: More versions as war approaches.


Joe Bauman said...

Is it possible they prounced it Americay? That’s how the rhymes sound.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, there are a number of songs from this period that rhyme “America” with words ending in the long a sound. That continues in some cultures (e.g., Irish) through the late 1800s, but by then people were remarking on the phenomenon, indicating that it was no longer standard. There’s a similar change with “huzzah,” which at least some people pronounced with a long a.

When Franklin Roosevelt sent his aide a copy of this song, he added that Carl Sandburg had written that Abraham Lincoln pronounced “America” with a long final a. I can’t confirm that, but at least the information comes from the very highest level.