1. Over the Hills and Far Away
This song appeared in a 1706 English play called The Recruiting Officer, in which an unscrupulous recruiter lures a couple of country bumpkins into "taking the king's shilling" and enlisting. His arguments are threefold: 1. Flee an unpleasant employment situation; 2. Escape an unpleasant domestic arrangement; 3. Advance in society. The first two may have been achievable, but becoming a gentleman by dint of bravery on the battlefield was so surpassingly uncommon as to be virtually impossible. The tune existed long before it gained these words, and was a favorite of fife-and-drum players on both the British and American sides.
2. Young Ladies in Town
A call to boycott British goods, after Acts of Parliament imposed taxes on such necessities as paint, glass, and tea. These verses appeared in the Boston Newsletter in 1769, appealing to the fairer sex to lead the way in inflicting economic hardship on British exporters. The colonies were a major market, so the tactic worked quite well. Bohea and hyson were teas imported from England, and their suggested replacement, Labrador or Indian tea, was an herbal concoction made from an evergreen bush, long enjoyed by native residents of America. The rhyme scheme suggests that "tea" was pronounced "tay," probably showing the influence of the many colonists of Irish heritage who would pronounce that word in that way. Jonathan Gilbert arranged the triple-recorder parts, to wonderful effect.
3. The Bird Song
Dating from the 1600s, this is a fine tune to keep one going through a long, repetitive task, of which life held many (churning butter, washing clothes, milking cows, cutting wood, scrubbing pots, spinning thread, mending clothes, etc., etc.). Try it whilst grocery shopping. Unlike many songs of the time that extolled the joys of the tavern as opposed to home life, this one ends with glorious monogamy.
4. Revolutionary Tea
In 1773 this allegory began to make the rounds, written in response to that hubbub in Boston Harbor. Its writer remained wisely anonymous, as the authorities no doubt took a dim view of its portrayal of England as a greedy old lady eager to exploit her daughter, America.
5. The British Grenadiers
From the 1600s onward, British soldiers proudly sang this regimental march wherever they were posted, including the American colonies. Originally the Grenadiers tossed grenades, but by the time of the Revolution that tactic has long been abandoned, as improved firearm accuracy made it suicidal to storm a fort in the described manner. Thus, Grenadiers did not, in fact, carry grenades, but they were the proud front-line troops who led the way into battle. Their "louped clothes" were lace patterns that they alone were allowed to wear. They were chosen for stature, and With their tall fur hats and murderous bayonets they struck terror into the hearts of opponents.
6. Free America
In 1770, Dr. Joseph Warren, a fervent patriot, wrote these defiant verses. What tune did he set them to? Why, the enemy's proudest military tune: The British Grenadiers. This was a bold insult that was not lost on the British. Twenty years before, during the French and Indian War, colonists had proudly sung the song with the original words to celebrate British victories, as they considered themselves British. By the time of Warren's remake, an estimated third of the population had broken with England and sought to become independent.
Warren, as chairman of the Committee of Safety, sent Paul Revere on his famous ride to warn John Adams and John Hancock that the British intended to arrest them. Warren lost his life at the Battle of Bunker Hill, where the Americans officially lost but inflicted so many casualties that they had a huge effect on the Redcoats' ability to continue fighting.
7. Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier
This ancient Irish song was beloved of the many colonists of Irish heritage, with its snippet of Gaelic. "Aroon" means "my treasure." The syllables sung in the chorus vary widely, a bit like a phrase in a game of "telephone," as centuries of singers learned it from one another. Like most folk songs, it spent most of its life undocumented in notation, passed from singer to singer by ear alone. My take on it is probably not very colonial, but I love interpreting old songs in my own way. It fits beautifully on the dulcimer, an antique instrument with a wonderful ancient tone.
8. Youth's the Season
A song from The Beggar's Opera, a popular 1728 English play by John Gay that used folk tunes rather than classical arias to advance the plot. It was the inspiration for The Threepenny Opera, of "Mack the Knife" fame. Mr. Gay used some 60 folk tunes, which hints at the wealth of melodies floating about at the time -- music that everybody knew in some form or other, and could easily relate to when a character began to sing onstage. Here we have the age-old "eat, drink and be merry" theme, in a setting where it glistens like a little jewel.
9. The Castle Island Song
In 1770 the British soldiers who had been occuplying Boston were sent to Castle Island for their own safety, as the Boston Massacre had made them extremely unpopular. While there they composed this ditty, set to a very old tune. They predict that John Hancock, leader of the rebels, will contract an icky skin disease -- the yaws -- and they offer to cure him with a hard pill -- a lead bullet. They also threaten that when reinforcements arrive they will house many more soliders with the reluctant population, whom they deride as "pumpkins." The Old State House in Boston has an original copy of this ballad on a broadside, a large sheet of cheap paper, which is the way songs were often sold at the time.
10. The Bacchanalian's Wish
John Popely wrote this fanciful song in 1740, wishing that Neptune had filled the sea with something more useful than brine. Water supplies were widely polluted, so people drank great quantities of beer, ale, wine, cider, and other spirits, which were safe to drink and a fine way to preserve grain and fruit. Popely's array of Roman and Greek divinities were common references at the time.
11. Sweet is the Budding Spring of Love
Another song from a play -- Flora, written in 1729 by John Hipplisley. It was one of the first musicals staged in America, in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1735. The song traces the arc of a love affair by linking each stage to a season of the year. Its cold ending is a brisk antidote to the sugary-sweet love songs that abounded, then as now.
12. Three Drunken Maidens
The image of demure maidens languishing at home gets a sound knocking here, as four girls stage a week-long binge. Jonathan's viola becomes increasingly tipsy as the verses, and the bills, pile up.
13. In the Days of My Youth
Another gem from The Beggar's Opera of 1728. I just adore the second verse -- kiss lovers when you're young; kiss the wine glass when you're old. Hear, hear!
14. An American Frigate
Americans were justly proud of John Paul Jones when he defeated British warships protecting a convoy in the English Channel. When asked if he were striking his colors -- lowering his flag in surrender -- Jones made his famous reply that he had not yet begun to fight. The Alliance was a French ship technically under Jones' command, but its daft and jealous captain attacked Jones' ship, the Bonhomme Richard, at the end of the battle! Politics ensured that he was not punished, even though Jones protested mightily in his report.
Interestingly, this ballad does not demonize the British, but praises both sides as brave and worthy. It was sung both in England and America. The Richard was a French ship named for Ben Franklin's popular character in Poor Richard's Almanac.
William Billings wrote this hymn in 1778, meant to raise morale as colonists faced the greatest army on earth with little hope of victory. The titles comes from the practice of giving hymn tunes the names of places, as they would acquire many sets of words and this helped keep track of the melody. The first verse strikes us as highly hypocritical, as many New Englanders owned slaves. How could they rail against the "slavery" of England? At the time slavery was considered a God-ordained fact of life, sanctioned in the Bible.
16. The Game of Cards
Now, now, it's just an innocent game of cards. Why, you could sing this song in church!
17. O Say, Bonny Lass
This tender proposal comes from a London play. It was written down in 1783 in a musical notebook kept by a paymaster in George Washington's army, Captain George Bush (no relation to the presidents). Bush subscribed to a London magazine that printed songs and ballads, and he also wrote down fiddle tunes and other melodies that came his way.
The soldier's offer to carry his wallet means that she would take care of his money and other valuables when he was off on a march. Then he asks, will she not only go on campaign, where she's likely to starve alongside him when provisions run low, but will she follow him onto the battlefield!
Many women lived and worked alongside their men in military camps. Known as camp followers, they received a small wage and a half-ration of food, for the army depended on their services as cooks, laundresses, and nurses. They often roamed the battlefield, bringing water and tending the wounded, and some stepped in to help fire cannons in the heat of battle, becoming the heroic "Molly Pitchers" of folklore. Others provided simple companionship, for a price. At a time with no social safety net, soliders were attractive mates because they received relatively steady wages, a security that made it worth the risk of following them into harm's way.
18. Soldier, Will You Marry Me?
A funny song from the 1700s, but one based on the harsh reality of the average soldier's poverty. British and American soldiers alike suffered from poor provisions, and American troops in particular froze and starved for lack of uniforms and food, most famously at Valley Forge.
19. Yankee Doodle
An ancient melody, so old it was dubbed "the air from who knows where." In the 1750s, a British officer made up some insulting verses to it, disgusted by the ragtag, undisciplined colonists he had to fight alongside during the French and Indian War. The first two verses us an older variant of the tune found in Capt. Bush's notebook. Later, in the 1770s, Yankees embraced the song, using the melody we know better, and it grew to have dozens of irreverent verses, mostly about a young "pumpkin" agog at the doings in a bustling military camp. In 1788, the tune gained yet another set of words, this time hailing the ratification of the U.S. Constitution by the state of Massachusetts.
20. The Tobacco Box, or the Soldier's Pledge of Love
Capt. Bush copied this song from a 1782 London play into his notebook a year before the British surrender. Tobacco was a cherished comfort in a hard life, and the soldier offers it to his love as "his all." At the end, as the drums call him to battle, she resigns him to fate, a common mindset at the time. Life was full of hazards, and no one knew what fate had in store -- so drink up and be cheerful!
21. Come Here, Fellow Servant!
A rollicking song from a 1759 London comedy, High Life Below the Stairs, in which a master disguises himself as a servant to spy on his employees. It became very popular in the colonies, which speaks to how bold ideas about equality took root in the New World. The verses proclaim that everyone is really the same, all in livery -- servant's uniform -- and all serving something, no matter how highfalutin' you may think you are. A love of freedom and mobility became part of the American character, and here is its echo across a span of 250 years. You can practically hear the motorcycles revving!