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 17, 2013

The Questions of “The White Cockade”

In 1835, septuagenarian Charles Handley sat down with local historian Josiah Adams to relate his memory of the start of the Revolutionary War. Handley testified that on 19 Apr 1775 he was twelve years old and “lived at the tavern kept by Mrs. Brown, nearly a mile northwest of the North Bridge” in Concord. Usually when a child was “living with” someone outside the family, that meant he or she had been put out to work.

Handley recalled:
I saw Captain [Isaac] Davis’s company, as they came from Acton. I first saw them coming through the fields north of Barrett’s mill, and they kept the fields till they came to the road at Mrs. Brown’s tavern. They there took the back road leading to the bridge. They marched quite fast to the music of a fife and drum. I remember the tune, but am not sure of its name; think it was called the “White Cockade.”
Handley then whistled the tune he remembered, which Adams confirmed was “The White Cockade.”

That tune was definitely established by 1775. It was printed the next year in David Herd’s Scottish Songs and again in Campbell’s Reels (1778) and Aird’s Airs (1782). The first used the title “My Love Was Born in Aberdeen,” but the latter two included the music only. A Boston 1775 commenter reported that the melody appears in many handwritten American collections of fife tunes from the Revolution.

In 1790 Robert Burns (1759-1796, shown above) published the lyrics that gave the tune the name “The White Cockade.” For the first time in print the song was explicitly in favor of the Jacobite uprising of 1745. And that raises some questions.

D. Michael Ryan addressed some of those questions in an essay on “The White Cockade” and another article on martial music at the North Bridge. As he notes, authors around the time of the Centennial picked up Handley’s small detail and ran with it. They wrote that the Acton Minutemen had played “The White Cockade” while actually marching down on the British regulars at the North Bridge, though young Charles didn’t see that. Further writing said that “The White Cockade” was a favorite of Acton, or of Capt. Davis—again with no additional evidence besides Handley testimony. One local man later told a newspaper that his father, a veteran of the battle, described the same tune, but by then the historical accounts might have affected memories.

Even after peeling away the latter-day exaggerations, Ryan asks:
Still, we have to wonder why this Scottish tune would have been a “signature tune” of the Acton Minute Men, a “familiar air to the dwellers of the vicinity,” or a “favorite” of Captain Isaac Davis, particularly as there appears to be no local connection to the 1745 Jacobite uprising. It is true that the tune was one of rebellion, it was popular with military and civilian musicians and audiences on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, it was found in music books of the period, and it was a lively tune for marching. Yet with some 500 witnesses at the North Bridge, why would not one deem it appropriate at the time (especially among the King’s men) to comment about “The White Cockade,” unless its notes simply were not played?
Another question occurs to me. In 1775, the Massachusetts Patriots were eager to show that they were standing up for British liberties and traditions. They viewed their political opponents as breaking those traditions with new taxes, appointees, &c. They linked that opposition whenever they could to Jacobite and Scottish usurpation, which let them present themselves as defenders of true British liberty. Why would those same provincials choose a tune that was clearly associated with the Jacobite threat?

I suspect that the tune we now know as “The White Cockade” didn’t have such a clear political meaning until Burns published in 1790. It probably had several sets of lyrics and several names, including a Jacobite version or two. But in New England, musicians might well have known the tune without political connotations.

After the Stuart line petered out, Burns’s “The White Cockade” was no longer a political threat but a quaint relic, suitable for publication. Burns’s popularity soon made his words the best-known lyrics to that tune. Therefore, by the time Handley and Adams spoke in 1835, they knew the tune first and foremost as “The White Cockade.” Back in 1775, it may not have had such a specific meaning.


Mr Punch said...

As far as I can see, the 1776 lyrics are Burns's; the earlier words, "John Highland Man," are somewhat less explicitly subversive, but not neutral. Is the tune really by Haydn, as some sources say? In any case, this appears to be an example of cultural transmission without published sources.

EJWitek said...

I think that your interpretation is spot on. I also think that this tune, whatever it may have been called in April 1775, was played at some time before or during the battle at Concord. There were fifers and drummers with several of the militia units and I hardly think it plausible that they remained silent. The militia units would have drilled with their fifers and drummers playing and the familiar music certainly would have been comforting and encouraging to men about to go into battle.

J. L. Bell said...

The words David Herd printed in 1776 and Burns’s lyrics both start, “My love was born in Aberdeen.” But in the 1776 version, headlined “Ranting Roving Lad,” are all about the beloved man roving away, with no cockades or political content. This 1840s book suggests “John Highlandman” was sometimes sung to the “White Cockade” melody, sometimes to another tune. I agree there were lyrics and tunes being transmitted on both sides of the Atlantic without being written down, much less printed. I’m just positing that the Jacobite version(s) weren’t yet prevalent in New England in 1775.

I also suspect that the fifers of 19 Apr 1775 probably played more than “The White Cockade” and “Yankee Doodle,” two tunes that witnesses recalled. After all, those marches took hours, and they and their listeners might have wanted a little variety. Indeed, they might have played a lot of very British tunes to underscore that their units were fighting for their rights as Englishmen.

Thomas said...

In comparing the Robert Burns 1790 lyrics with those of 1776 it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Burns merely bowdlerised the earlier version to give it a Jacobite twist. The suggested interpretation of the likely contemporary significance of the song in 1776 is quite plausible. Likewise the possibility that militia units played 'British' military tunes whilst marching also seems quite likely. It is quite natural to cling to the familiar in times of crisis in addition to which the militia as this point was very well trained part of which likely included marching in time to drumbeat and fife.