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, April 22, 2009

The Music of Paul Revere

On Sunday evening I had the honor of being the keynote speaker at Boston National Historical Park’s annual “Paul Revere’s Row” reenactment, and the pleasure of hearing Krystal Bly of the Histrionic Academy sing eighteenth-century political songs with the same audience.

Krystal mentioned the challenge of finding songs about Paul Revere, given that he wasn’t that famous until Henry W. Longfellow made him so. But the silversmith did have a musical side.
Revere engraved this frontispiece for William Billings’s The New England Psalm-Singer, which showed gentlemen at a “Music Party” bordered by an oval of musical notation. The lyrics of that psalm:

Wake ev’ry Breath, & ev’ry String
To bless the great Redeemer King.
His Name thro’ ev’ry Clime ador’d:
Let Joy & Gratitude and Love,
Thro’ all the Notes of Music rove:
And JESUS found on ev’ry Chord.
Not Billings’s or Revere’s best work, and not appropriate for every public audience, but directly connected to the silversmith himself.

Back in 2006, I quoted a poem that “Eb. Stiles” published in 1795, meaning that Revere probably heard it himself. Pity it’s not a better poem:
He turned his steed through field and wood
Nor turned to ford the river,
But faced his horse to the foaming flood,
And swum across together.

He madly dashed o’er mountain and moor,
Never slackened spur nor rein
Until with shout he stood by the door
Of the Church on Concord green.
Like Longfellow, Stiles credited Revere with making it all the way to Concord, which he didn’t. (Dr. Samuel Prescott carried Revere’s news that last leg from Lincoln to Concord.) But Stiles remains the only chronicler to suggest that Revere and his horse had actually swum across a river.

In an essay in Music in Colonial Massachusetts, volume 1, the musicologist Carleton Sprague Smith posited that a lot of the early American verses we know only from broadsides were actually meant to be sung to well-known tunes. He even matched some up: “A Verse Occasioned by the Late Horrid Massacre in King-Street” with the tune “Christ in the Garden,” and “On the Death of Five Young Men who was Murthered, March 5th 1770” with “Oh, Have You Heard?”

I don’t know enough about folk music to evaluate Smith’s hypothesis. But it suggests that Stiles’s poem about Revere could also be sung to a popular air of the day, if only we knew which one.

After Longfellow’s poem made Revere nationally famous in 1861, his story inspired a number of composers. Webb Miller wrote “Paul Revere’s Ride” as a “galop brillante” in 1884. The Library of Congress offers the complete sheet music, as Krystal had found.

E. T. Paull published his “march-twostep” treatment of the same theme in 1905. Here’s a MIDI recording on Joe Feenstra’s website on Paull.

And of course there’s always “Hungry,” which wouldn’t be a bad reflection of Revere’s social ambition.


Bob said...

I'm no musicologist, but the Stiles poem is in "8s & 7s," one of the common hymn meters, so could have been sung to a great many tunes that follow that pattern.

Hymn tunes were in everyone's head in those days I suspect. People often don't remember that Emerson's Concord Hymn was in fact sung at the dedication of the first North Bridge monument -- to the tune of "Old Hundredth" I think ("All bloggers that on earth do dwell...").

J. L. Bell said...

That comment gets at the question I had. As long as the metre is solid, then we can probably sing a given text to lots of melodies.

I think C. S. Smith’s argument was that (a) the new texts were often tailored for a particular tune, and (b) knowing that tune added more meaning to the text, in the same way as recognizing the tune that a talk-show band plays as a guest arrives.

Bob said...

I think that's probably right. Although it is possible to mix and match any tune and verse that have the same meter, there are certain pairings that are long established and familiar, and when either a new verse or a new tune is introduced it is often in conjunction with an existing counterpart. Many of the early broadside verses probably circulated in conjunction with specific tunes that were taken for granted -- printing music is expensive, while printing text is cheap.

(I'll never forget the first time I heard "O Little Town of Bethlehem" sung to a different tune than the one I grew up with -- I think it was a British version. Those British are always stirring up trouble...)