A Colonial Parody of a British Song:
"A New Song, to the Plaintive Tune of Hosier's Ghost"
In America, music has recorded important events from the American Revolution to the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, and beyond. Songs, like diaries, journals, letters, and other primary sources provide a way to take a closer look at the emotions felt by ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
Relatively little music was published in the American colonies. However, as political unrest in the colonies grew, new "songs" would appear in colonial newspapers. Basically, these compositions were new lyrics, written by amateur American poets, set to familiar English melodies. British songs such as God Save the King and Rule Britannia were transformed into songs meant to ignite the colonists' passions for the cause of liberty.
How widely these songs were used is subject to debate. Some historians feel that they were largely propaganda tools and rarely sung. However, evidence of the singing of liberty songs in Virginia is available in the journal of Philip Vickers Fithian, tutor to the children of Robert Carter, a wealthy Tidewater plantation owner. Fithian's entry dated January 18, 1774 describes a ball he attended at a neighboring plantation:
"But all did not join in the Dance for there were parties in Rooms made up, some at Cards; some drinking for Pleasure; some toasting the Sons of america; some singing "Liberty Songs" as they call'd them, in which six, eight, ten or more would put their Heads near together and roar, and for the most part as unharmonious as an affronted —" [Fithian did not say what was "affronted"]
The singing of liberty songs was not limited to Virginia. Richard Peters, secretary to the Board of War, felt strongly that patriotic songs had an important influence on the attitudes and performance of the Continental forces during times of hardship. On July 11, 1779, he wrote to Continental Army General Anthony Wayne:
"Dear Sir,– I heard an Irishman the other day, sing a very foolish ballad of three or four verses, yet its simplicity struck me, and I have, this rainy morning scribbled the enclosed . . . I send it to you that you may give it to some of your singing sergeants or to be introduced into the army, under the protection of at least a non-commissioned officer. It goes to the tune of an Irish lilt, which I have often heard the fifers play . . . I am a great friend to ballads, and believe that more can be achieved, by a few occasional simple songs, than by an hundred recommendations of Congress, especially considering how few attend to or read them . . . I wish often to see ballads dispersed among the soldiery, which, inspiring in them a thirst for glory, patience under their hardships, a love of their General, and submission to their officers, would animate them to a cheerful discharge of their duty, and prompt them to undergo their hardships with a soldierly patience and pleasure."
The song below was published throughout the colonies after the Boston Tea Party and became one of the first ballads of the war. It was written by an anonymous Philadelphian and first printed in the Pennsylvania Packet on January 3, 1774. The words to this American song describe the events on that fateful night of December 16, 1773, and inspired other colonists to unite with the Bostonians in their eventual decision to boycott British goods.
Click on the title below to play the song. Following the lyrics are a Song Analysis Worksheet (PDF file), notes and questions that can be used for an in-depth examination and discussion of the lyrics, as well as some tips for using songs as primary sources in the classroom.
A New Song, To the Plaintive Tune of Hosier's Ghost
(Click on the title to play the song.)
As near beauteous Boston lying,
On the gently swelling Flood,
Without Jack or Pendant flying,
Three ill fated Tea Ships rode.
Just as glorious Sol was setting,
On the Wharf a numerous Crew,
Sons of Freedom, Fear forgetting,
Suddenly appear'd in View.
Arm'd with Hammer, axe, and Chisels,
Weapons new for warlike Deed,
Toward the Herbage-freighted Vessels
They approach'd with dreadful Speed.
O'er their Heads, aloft in Midsky,
Three bright Angel Forms were seen;
This was Hampden, that was Sidney,
With fair Liberty between.
"Soon," they cry'd, "your Foes you'll banish,
"soon the Triumph shall be won,
"Scarce shall setting Phebus vanish,
"Ere the deathless Deed be done."
Quick as Thought the Ships were boarded,
Hatches burst, and Chests display'd;
Axes, Hammers, Help afforded;
What a glorious Crash they made!
Squash into the deep descended
Cursed Weed of China's Coast,
Thus at once our Fears were ended;
British Rights shall ne'er be lost.
Captains! once more hoist your Streamers,
Spread your Sails, and plow the Wave!
Tell your Masters they were Dreamers
When they thought to cheat the BRAVE.
Source: Virginia Gazette (Purdie and Dixon), January 20, 1774.
Song Analysis Worksheet (Click to open the PDF file)
Notes and Questions for Discussion
- Verse 1: "without Jack . . . flying" refers to the absence of the British flag, often referred to as the Union Jack. Why would the flag not have been flying?
- Verse 2: "glorious Sol"—the sun. Who were the Sons of Freedom? By what name are they more often called?
- Verse 3: Why were the men "armed" with "hammer, axe, and chisel" instead of guns? "Herbage-freighted Vessels" were the ships carrying a cargo of tea.
- Verse 4: John Hampden and Algernon Sydney (sometimes spelled Sidney) were 17th-century British politicians who symbolized to Americans the pursuit of representative government and civil and religious freedom. Why would the writers of this song include Hampden, Sydney, and Liberty as angels overseeing the actions of the Sons of Liberty?
- Verse 5: "Phebus," usually spelled "Phoebus," refers to the Greek sun god. This verse says that before the sun sets, the "deathless deed" will be completed. Why was it important that the Sons of Liberty did not harm anyone during the Tea Party?
- Verse 6: Why would the "crash" of hammers and axes be "glorious" to the colonists?
- Verse 7: "Cursed Weed of China's Coast" refers to the tea that sunk deep into the harbor. Were the colonists being overly optimistic to think that their "Fears were ended?"
- Verse 8: Who is referred to as "brave" in this verse?
Using Songs in the Classroom
- Collect songs/poems from the various time periods that you teach. Slave spirituals, war protest songs, songs from the Civil Rights Movement, etc. all provide excellent opportunities for looking behind the facts of an era to see the perspective of ordinary people.
- Collaborate with your school's music teacher to see if he/she has recordings of the songs you choose or can teach them during music class.
This article was written by Beth Burney, elementary school teacher, Atlanta, GA.