Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Our Singing Patriots

by Rebecca Price Janney

Most Americans associate the song “Yankee Doodle” with our Revolution against Great Britain (1775-1781), and I’m guessing some of you can “hear” the tune in your head now, accompanied by the sound of a fife of course. It was actually written in 1755 by a surgeon in the British Army. According to Our Singing Nation, “Little did he dream that it would become the Continental Army’s favorite song and would ring in the ears of British soldiers until the War of Independence was over!” 1 (I always used to wonder what it meant to stick a feather in your cap and call it macaroni. According to one source, the term “macaroni” referred to something fashionable back in that era. Okay, that makes sense now!)

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Joseph Warren is widely known as a physician from Boston who played an important role in the early struggle for independence.
Image result for joseph warren bunker hill
In addition to serving as President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, he took up arms at the Battle of Breed’s Hill on June 17, 1775, acting as a Major General. He often said of the British, “These fellows say we won’t fight. By Heaven, I hope I shall die up to my knees in blood!”
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He heroically held his position until out of ammunition, allowing his outnumbered men to escape, and died when a musket ball struck him in the head. Before his death, Warren wrote “Free America” in which he said in the second verse:

We led fair Freedom hither,
And lo, the desert smiled.
A paradise of pleasure
Was opened in the wild.
Your harvest, bold Americans,
No pow’r shall snatch away!
Huzza, huzza, huzza
For free America!

Some have called “The Liberty Song” by Founding Father John Dickinson America’s first patriotic song. It first appeared in 1768 in The Boston Gazette, and the Sons of Liberty used to sing it whenever they gathered. It went to the tune of “Hearts of Oak,” a British song:
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Come join hand in hand, brave Americans all,
And rouse your bold hearts at fair Liberty’s call. 
No tyrannous acts shall suppress your just claim,
Or stain with dishonor America’s name.
In freedom we’re born, and in freedom we’ll live.
Our purses are ready,
Steady friends, steady!
Not as slaves, but as free men our money we’ll give!

One song in particular was sung and played by the British, as well as the Patriots, “The Girl I Left Behind.” Its plaintive theme of missing a beloved lass is universal, so it’s understandable that soldiers on both sides liked hearing it. 

I’m lonesome since I cross’d the hill,
And o’er the moor and valley.
Such heavy thoughts my heart do fill,
Since parting with my Sally.
I seek no more the fine and gay,
For each does but remind me
How swift the hours did pass away
With the girl I left behind me.

The American Revolution reached its conclusion at the Battle of Yorktown in October 1781. As the British under General Cornwallis surrendered to General George Washington, they played the tune, “The World Turned Upside Down.”Image result for The Battle of Yorktown surrender

If buttercups buzz’d after the bees,
If boats were on land, churches on sea,
If ponies rode men,
And if grass ate the cows,
And cats would be chased into holes by the mouse!
If the mammas sold their babies
To the gypsies for half a crown,
If summer were spring and the other way ‘round,
Then all the world would be upside down.

Those were some of the songs that formed “the hit parade” of the American Revolution. Today we don’t tend to recognize most of them, since others have taken their place, “America,” “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” “God Bless America,” “The National Anthem,” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” along with the up tempo marches of John Philip Sousa. Do you have a favorite patriotic song, one that makes you tingle, or perhaps brings a tear to your eyes? 

1. Ruth Heller, Our Singing Nation. Minneapolis: Schmitt, Hall and McCreary Company, 1955. p. 22

Rebecca Price Janney is an award-winning author of several books and speaker about American history. Her titles include Great Events in American History and Great Stories in American History. When she was growing up in the Lehigh Valley of eastern Pennsylvania, she especially loved “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” by George M. Cohan, and “America the Beautiful” by Katharine Lee Bates still makes her cry, especially the second verse:

O beautiful heroes proved in liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life
America! America! May God thy gold refine
Til all success be nobleness
And every gain divine.

 www.rebeccapricejanney.com; @rebeccajanney.


  1. Fun post, Rebecca. I love these old verses. America needs a resurgence of patriotic songs!

  2. I love it that the song written by the opposing soldier became a well loved song of the opposite side! sm wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

  3. I know, isn't that so ironic!

  4. Hi Rebecca, terrific article. It made me want to break out in song, just as "An American with a Remington" by Larry Gatlin came on the radio. We may see a resurgence of patriotic songs.

  5. Thanks, Linda! I could just picture you doing that! Huzzah!