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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Friday, February 16, 2018

“With a tow row, row row, row row, to the British Grenadiers”

Just as “The Liberty Song” and “The Massachusetts Liberty Song” were written to a popular and patriotic tune, the song that Josiah Flagg debuted in February 1770 also consisted of new lyrics to an established melody.

The source was “The British Grenadiers,” referred to as “The Granadeer’s March” by 1706. The first known printing of the song came in about 1750, and here’s one version of the lyrics from that period:
Some talk of Alexander and some of Hercules,
Of Conon and Lysander, and some Miltiades;
But of all the world’s brave heroes
There is none that can compare
With a tow row, row row, row row, to the British Grenadiers.
Chorus: But of all the world’s, &c.

None of those ancient heroes e’er saw a cannon ball,
Or knew the force of Powder to slay their foes withal;
But our brave boys do know it, and banish all their fears,
With a tow row, row row, row row, the British Grenadiers.
Chorus: But our brave boys, &c.

Whene’er we are commanded to storm the Palisades,
Our Leaders march with Fusees and we with hand Granades;
We throw them from the Glacis about our enemies’ ears,
With a tow row, row row, row row, the British Grenadiers.
Chorus: We throw them from, &c.
And so on. That third verse refers to the grenadiers throwing grenades, something they hadn’t actually done for decades, so those lines were undoubtedly older.

The 29 June 1769 Boston Chronicle included this advertisement from Josiah Flagg:
For the Benefit of Mr. FLAGG.
This Evening,
A public Concert of
Vocal and Instrumental MUSIC,
Will be performed at Concert Hall in Queen-street.
The Vocal part to be performed by Four Voices, and to conclude with the BRITISH GRENADIERS.——N.B. TICKETS to be had at the Printers, or at the London Bookstore, at HALF a DOLLAR each.—To begin precisely at half after seven.
*** The last Concert this Season.
Flagg therefore knew “The British Grenadiers” well. His earlier advertisements for this concert hadn’t mentioned that tune, but he must have thought it had appeal.

At the time there were actual grenadiers in Boston—men of the 14th, 29th, 64th, and 65th Regiments. The latter two regiments would move to Halifax the next month, but the British government’s decision to station soldiers in Boston since October 1768 was a political sore spot. Even though “The British Grenadiers” was a patriotic song, and the Boston Whigs were busy proclaiming their patriotism, there were undeniable implications to singing praise for soldiers then.

Might that have inspired “a Son of Liberty” to pen new lyrics?

TOMORROW: New words to an old tune.


Mike Barbieri said...

Music tells us so much about a particular culture and time. Thanks for creating postings about this song.

As a minor aside, I think you'll find that "British Grenadiers" and "The Grenadiers March" are two different tunes.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, those are quite different tunes. Some scholars say that what we now call “The British Grenadiers” was referred to as “The Granadeer’s March” early in the eighteenth century, muddying the waters.