The Cambridge History of American Literature/Book III/Chapter XXVI

The Cambridge History of American Literature by Percy H. Boynton
Book III, Chapter XXVI: Patriotic Songs and Hymns


Patriotic Songs and Hymns.

ALTHOUGH Americans have been a relatively untuneful people, popular song has never been inaudible since the beginning of our national life. Out of the steady succession of jaunty or sentimental melodies a few have been saved through their appropriation for patriotic ends. A larger body of hymns has survived in the traditions of public worship and through the conserving influence of the hymnals. A common religious feeling makes the appeal for the religious lyric; the corresponding motive for secular song is a wave of community enthusiasm; and patriotic zeal seldom becomes vocal except in times of actual or imminent national danger. A brief account of this double theme must be limited to the interpretation of established facts about songs that are sung, and must omit all purely literary lyrics; and where the facts as to origins of texts and melodies are in debate, the apparently best findings must be given without much argument.

Considered as expressions of popular feeling, patriotic songs are full of varied significance. The origin of the tunes is interesting; the question of a previous vogue and how it was attained; the question as to whether they were written for the words, or merely combined with them; the relation of the tunes to their musical periods; and their vocal quality. Corresponding points arise with reference to the words: in particular whether they were inspired by some occasion, or written on request; the circumstances in which they were produced; when and how they achieved national favour; and how far they have held it. The answers to these questions do not supply the material for any compact formula; they prove rather that the ages do not exhaust, nor custom limit, the variety of ways for satisfying popular taste.

Yankee Doodle, for example, is full of surprises, inconsistencies, paradoxes in its career. It is not really a song, but it is a band tune which no existing adult audience has ever sung together. The single stanza known to everyone is not a part of the Revolutionary War ballad, but belongs to an earlier period in its history. The music is unheroic; the title ("a New England Noodle") is derogatory to the people who adopted it in spite of its ridicule. And yet it has become a piece of jovial defiance as stirring as The Campbells Are Coming. The melody, as has often been the case, was generally known for several years before it was turned to patriotic account. As early as 1764 the familiar quatrain was current in England, and by 1767 the tune was familiar enough in America to be cited in Barton's (or Colonel Forrest's) comic opera, Disappointment, or The Force of Credulity. In derision of the foolish Yankee there soon began to multiply variants, most of which have come down by hearsay, and are very vague as to date; but one was a broadside and attests in the title to its currency before April, 1775: Yankee Doodle; or, (as now christened by the Saints of New England) the Lexington March. N.B. The Words to be Sung throu' the Nose, & in the West Country drawl and dialect. The text of The Yankee's Return from Camp—the famous but forgotten version—is attributed to Edward Bangs, a Harvard student, and was written in 1775 or 1776. Tory derision did not cease with its appearance, and between the accumulating stanzas in rejoinder and those in supplement gave ground for the speech of "Jonathan" in Tyler's The Contrast of 1787: "Some other time, when you and I are better acquainted, I'll sing the whole of it—no, no, that's a fib—I can't sing but a hundred and ninety verses; our Tabitha at home can sing it all." In time, however, the words lost interest for all but antiquarians, so that the stanza in The Songster's MuseumDwas literally true in 1826 as it is to-day:

Yankee Doodle is the tune
 Americans delight in.
'Twill do to whistle, sing or play,
 And just the thing for fighting.

The story of Hail Columbia is an almost complete contrast with that of Yankee Doodle, the chief point in common being that the music preceded the words. The President's March, probably composed by Philip Phile, a Philadelphia violinist, was popular in 1794 within a year of its production. In 1798 an actor, Gilbert Fox, applied to Joseph Hopkinson, accomplished son of the talented Francis, for a patriotic song adapted to The President's March, to be sung by Fox at a personal benefit performance, for which the prospects of a good house were discouraging. Hopkinson wrote in behalf of a unified country at a moment when, according to Freneau's The Rival Suitors for America, party claims were creating a dangerous rift through conflicting sympathies with France and England. Hail Columbia, as introduced by Fox, was a favourite from the start. It was encored a dozen times. It was repeated at other theatres, and on "circus nights." It was printed in The Porcupine Gazette three days later, 28 April, in the May number of The Philadelphia Magazine, in The Connecticut Courant of 7 May. "Soon no public entertainment was considered satisfactory without it"; and it has continued in use without textual change until the present day.

We owe The Star Spangled Banner to the existence of a long-popular melody and to the inspiration of a thrilling event—the British attack on Fort McHenry, 13 April, 1814. Words and music of To Anacreon in Heaven, constitutional song of the Anacreontic Society in London, were published in 1771. They became so beloved of all convivial souls that the words (with or without the music) were reprinted in twenty-one known magazines and song collections in England between 1780 and 1804, and the melody (with the original or adapted words) was printed no less than thirty times in America between 1796 and 1813. For this tune, in the thrill of the moment of discovery that "the flag was still there," Francis Scott Key began his version of the song "in the dawn's early light," sketched out the remainder on the way to land, copied it on arrival at his Baltimore hotel, and saw it in circulation as a broadside on the next day. At the outset it met with only moderate popularity, being omitted, as a universal favourite never could have been, from many important song books during the next twenty years. Not until the Civil War was it widely accepted as a national anthem, and then came two more paraphrases in St. George Tucker's attempt to requisition it for the Confederacy in The Southern Cross and in Oliver Wendell Holmes's added stanza.

Here are three types, the common factor being that the music always provided the pattern for the words. Yankee Doodle was a sort of ballad, loaded on a music vehicle which has rolled through the decades without its burden. Hail Columbia, written for a march tune, was made public in propitious circumstances and achieved an immediate vogue, but is seldom sung today except to fill out a program. The Star Spangled Banner, set to an old convivial song, with a range that demands the exhilaration of the cup, has been granted long life on account of its official recognition; yet it successfully defies vocal assault by any mixed group. America, the fourth permanently national song, casually written in 1832 by the youthful S. F. Smith, was set to an English tune of ninety years' standing encountered in a German song book lent him by Lowell Mason. This, therefore, though simple and popular, was no more indigenous than Yankee Doodle or The Star Spangled Banner. In recognition of these facts an attempt was made in 1861 to elicit a national hymn by means of a public competition for a substantial prize. The committee of award accepted their duty with misgivings, reluctant "to assume the function of deciding for their fellow-citizens a question which it seemed to them could really be settled only by general consent and the lapse of time." Their fears were realized, and they exercised the right they had reserved to make no award.

In the meanwhile general consent was being given to a song and to a hymn which are more and more popular with the lapse of time. These are Dixie and The Battle Hymn of the Republic. The original Dixie was composed on forty-eight hours’ notice by Dan D. Emmett in September, 1859. He was then under contract with Bryant’s Minstrels, New York, as musician and composer of "negro melodies and plantation walk—arounds." On a bleak northern Sunday he composed this "rush order" around the showman’s autumnal and winter saying, "I wish I was in Dixie." The rollicking measure scored a natural success with every audience, and the sentiment reinforced its appeal in the South. Sung late in 1860 and early 496 Patriotic Songs and Hymns in 1861 at New Orleans, it made an especially sensational "hit" and soon all the Confederate states rang with it.' On 30 April of that year The Natchez Courier printed Albert B. Pike's "Southrons, hear your country call you," a stirring lyric itself, but only a temporary substitute for the Emmett words, "I wish I was in de land ob cotton," the first stanza of which is known everywhere in America. Fanny J. Crosby's attempt to regain the tune for the North with her "On ye patriots to the battle" was wholly unsuccessful; the other Southern variants died away; Pike's version is now a literary memory; but Emmett's original words and music still bring people to their feet as no other song in America does. They stand in deference to the tradition of The Star Spangled Banner, but they rise to Dixie itself. The melody for The Battle Hymn oj the Republic has had quite the most varied career in the history of American patri- otic song. It came into being as a Southern camp-meeting song early enough to have been included in Henry Ward Beecher's Plymouth Collection of 1852. With the organization of the 1 2th Massachusetts Infantry in 1861 two Maine men in the second battalion introduced to camp "Say brothers, will you meet us, On Canaan's happy shore? " To this melody the glee club of the unit evolved a set of verses half applied to one of their own members, a Scotch John Brown. When these words became the characteristic song of the regiment, the officers tried in vain to have the words applied to Ellsworth, the first Northern commissioned officer who had fallen in the War. Inevitably many new versions were composed on John Brown of Ossawatomie — by H. H. Brownell, Edna Dean Proctor, Charles Sprague Hall, and anonymous writers; and from these developed variants beyond recall. The hymn had become a war ballad of widest popularity; but the ballad was to be rehabilitated as a hymn again. This occurred when Julia Ward Howe, one of a party to visit the Army of the Potomac in December, 1861, was urged by James Freeman Clarke to dignify the chant with adequate words. Her attempt was christened by James T. Fields and appeared in the Atlantic, February, 1862, as The Battle Hymn of the Republic. The marked differences between these three lyrics show how vital ' See, also. Book III, Chap. ill.