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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Thursday, February 01, 2018

“The Liberty Song” with a “Set of Notes”

Last month I wrote a few postings about “The Liberty Song” appearing in 1768 and quickly becoming popular among American Whigs.

I also wrote a series about how John Mein and John Fleeming’s Boston Chronicle, launched in late 1767, was quickly branded as a newspaper that supported the royal government. Reprinting an unflattering remark about Whig hero William Pitt and then physically attacking one of the printers of the radical Boston Gazette was bound to have that effect.

Today I’m going to cross those two narrative streams.

The first Boston newspaper to publish “The Liberty Song” was Edes and Gill’s Boston Gazette on 18 July. The Fleet brothersBoston Evening-Post, also Whiggish but not as strident, followed on 22 August. And the third set of Boston printers to issue the song were…Mein and Fleeming.

The issue of the Chronicle published on 5 September devoted a full two-thirds of a page to the eight-verse version of the song that had already appeared in the rival papers. The lines were nicely laid out with large type and lots of white space. The Massachusetts Historical Society features that page here.

In the upper right corner is an advertisement revealing why Mein and Fleeming gave so much space to that song. It says:
The preceding NEW and FAVOURITE
Neatly engraved on COPPER-PLATE, the size of half a sheet of Paper,
Set to MUSIC for the VOICE,
And to which is also added,
A SET of NOTES adapted to the GERMAN FLUTE and VIOLIN,
is just published and to be SOLD at the
LONDON Book-store, King-street, Boston,
Price SIXPENCE Lawful single, and FOUR SHILLINGS Lawful, the dozen.
In sum, those printers were using their newspaper to promote their broadside.

Below that advertisement for the broadside was another for Bickerstaff’s Almanack, which Mein and Fleeming would publish at the end of the year. When that almanac appeared, it also included the lyrics and music of “The Liberty Song,” as shown at the top (image courtesy of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts).

Twelve months later, Mein and Fleeming issued their Bickerstaff’s Almanack for 1770. That included “The Massachusetts Song of Liberty,” Dr. Benjamin Church’s Whiggish parody of the Loyalist parody of the original. It looks like the printers removed the type around the musical staffs and replaced it with the new title and lyrics. The American Antiquarian Society shows how that looked. (Experts who’ve seen both versions up close could say whether the type was set or engraved, and thus how easy it was to replace.)

My bet is that Mein had brought with him from Britain some engraved lines of music for “Hearts of Oak,” already a popular British song. When he realized that Bostonians were singing “The Liberty Song” to the same tune, he seized the opportunity to be the first and only printer in America selling the words and music together.

Why did Mein and Fleeming publish lyrics which were increasingly at odds with their editorial stance and their patrons’ politics? Because those Whiggish lyrics undoubtedly sold better in Massachusetts. “The Liberty Song” had become so popular that even Loyalist printers couldn’t resist that demand.


Anonymous said...

I am surprised to see that this is not the easiest song to sing: some octave jumps, an unusual downward cadence (E C A, not E C G), and a range of an octave and a half. Why did I think it would it would be simple, like "Love Me Tender" or "Jesus Loves Me"? Was the ordinary person a pretty good singer and music-reader?

J. L. Bell said...

Well, this is from the same period that thought the tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner” would be great for men to sing in a tavern after dinner.

Charles Bahne said...

Based on the appearance of both images -- the one posted at the top of today's entry, and the "Massachusetts Song of Liberty" from the AAS website -- the lyrics and other words are clearly set in regular type, and are not part of the engraved staves. Text that is part of an engraving has an entirely different appearance; compare the poetic verses at the bottom of Revere's Boston Massacre print.

The engraving probably consists of three separate plates, one for each staff. That would be cheaper than engraving the lyrics, and would allow for easily changing the text. After all, this tune was borrowed; it had already been used with other lyrics. No one would have paid an engraver to etch in a text, when there's a likelihood that another parody would be written a few weeks later. The engraved lyrics would be rather permanent; typeset ones could be easily altered.

(By the way, the link "image courtesy of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts" leads me to a page with numerous sublinks, some of which have dozens of images on them. I couldn't find this particular image on any of those links, but maybe I just got overwhelmed by trying to scroll down so many pages.)

J. L. Bell said...

The M.H.S. and A.A.S. have webpages devoted to the particular documents I referred to in the posting. The Colonial Society doesn’t. Instead, it’s put its entire publication series online, including two volumes of articles on music in colonial Massachusetts, some of them copiously illustrated with period documents and musical scores. So yes, that link can’t lead directly to the image in question. But it’s a resource for people interested in the larger topic.

Your analysis of the musical staffs is in accord with mine, but some folks who apparently looked at the original printings (as opposed to digital and photographic images of them) suggested the words were engraved and then rubbed out.