“History is about people,” writes musician-historian David K. Hildebrand, and what better way is there to explore the thoughts and attitudes of people than through the songs they sing. Music of the War of 1812 in America allows us to do just that. Noted dance historian Kate van Winkle Keller has selected more than 50 songs and song-texts (plus 16 additional partial texts), through which we glimpse a variety of reactions to the unsettling events of the Second War with Britain. Some songs express approval and admiration for the war and the people who fought it; others not so much, but all are clearly presented in modern transcription for those who wish to re-create the various musical sentiments of these tumultuous years.
The songs refer to specific war-time events, but the focus is not the where or when of what happened. Rather, they reveal how the writer (and ultimately, the singer) felt about what happened. Thus, the textual burden of the “Siege of Plattsburgh” is not so much to proclaim the American victory—that’s a given—but instead to flaunt it in the face of the defeated British. To reinforce its impertinence, the text is set to the well-known “Boyne Water,” a tune that heretofore had celebrated English military victory; to add impudence, performers were directed to sing “in the Character [and dialect] of a Black Sailor” (p. 132). The song was an instant hit, locking tune and text together so that ultimately the tune “Boyne Water” lost its title to a new one, “Back Side of Albany,” adopted from the opening phrase of the “Siege” text.
This illustrates a phenomenon that the late music historian Arthur Schrader called “emotional baggage.” Songs are comprised of two distinct parts (text plus melody), and a successful parody like “Siege of Plattsburgh” melds them together inextricably, partly because of the lively topical nature of the text and partly because of the familiar nature of the tune. The emotional baggage results when the tune absorbs specific characterizations from a closely associated text, so much so that even without the words the tune retains the singular nature textually imparted to it. This is what happened with the tune “Peggy Band,” a typical military retreat used in the ceremony that signaled the close of the soldiers’ workday. It carried emotional baggage from its widespread use as a theatre song, which pokes fun at the wretchedness of debtor’s prison. So, when the British field music played the standard “Peggy Band” on the evening of the Yorktown surrender in 1781, it delighted a certain Virginia militia colonel who recognized it as “A Debtor’s Welcome to His Brother.” With this baggage, the otherwise benign military retreat became a sassy repartee to the conquered British, something that the listener, a victorious American, found “by no means disagreeable.” Similarly, Dr. Hildebrand points out,
The melody of “John Anderson, My Jo,” a ribald Scottish song about a feeble old man, was chosen to deride the president blamed with starting the [War of 1812] in several new songs called “James Madison, My Jo.” This added level of meaning is often lost to the modern listener, who for the most part doesn’t recognize and therefore doesn’t appreciate the irony. [Thus,] the many settings of the tune ‘Yankee Doodle’ read very differently once one comes to understand the cocky, pseudo-insulting nature of most of the texts written to this melody.
In fact, “Yankee Doodle” is ubiquitous throughout Music of the War of 1812 in America with more texts set to it than any other tune in the book. Thanks to Keller’s meticulous scholarship “Yankee” and all of the other texts and tunes featured in this collection are fully identified so that readers (and singers) can enjoy them today exactly as they were intended 200 years ago.
Music of the War of 1812 in America is not limited to songs. There is also a section on dances, with several medleys “inspired by places, events, and people” related to the war. Of importance to fifers and drummers, though, is “Set IV,” consisting of 12 original tunes composed by John Carroll while serving at Fort Niagara, NY. Apparently Carroll had an affinity for both “music and whiskey,” with the latter sometimes inspiring the former. In fact, one of the tunes, “Carroll’s Thoughts on Eternity,” was composed during a “frightful night [spent] in the black hole,” a punishment warranted by his attendance to duty in a state of inebriation:
“Here in the middle of the night, in answer to his yells, he was found in a piteous condition of fright, declaring all the hobgoblins and devils in existence had visited him, and begged for a light, a fife, and pen, ink, and paper, which were granted him. In the morning he presented to the other musicians the notes of a tune he had composed in the dungeon. . .”
Arguably, the Carroll compositions is the most important part of this book for what they reveal about the composer, fifers, and fifing during the War of 1812:
1. Fifers at this time were notorious musical thieves. Rather than compose music specifically for the fife, they merely adopted (or adapted) songs or dance tunes that were currently in the air. Even the music published as part of the fife instruction books (“tutors”), was largely ignored, save for the camp duties, because Carroll and his fellow fifers preferred to fill their copybooks with favorite songs, theater pieces, and dance tunes to use for specific military functions, including marching. The 12 original Carroll compositions, therefore, are a welcome but unusual find.
2. The number and excellence of Carroll’s works belie the tacit scholarly belief that fifers in general were poor musicians. Military orders complaining of the “bad musick” of the fifers (and drummers) exist as early as the Revolution and as late as the Civil War. In addition, the compilers of several instructional tutors published in the early 19th century clearly express in their prefatory remarks a desire to improve the field music. This type of negative commentary has been cited so frequently that very little scholarly effort has been directed to disproving or at least contextualizing it, although supportive primary evidence does indeed exist (see, for example “Revolutionary Music, Good or Bad?,” https://historyoftheancients.wordpress.com/153-2/). The fact that Carroll, even while at times under the influence of alcohol (or delirium tremens), could compose and notate 12 tunes of such quality, using a fife to assist him, demonstrates that a) he was a fifer with sophisticated musical skills who could compose and notate good music and b) he served among other talented fifers capable of playing it.
A check of the period literature reveals that there are other fife tunes dispersed in the song portion of the Music of the War of 1812 in America. Of course, “Yankee Doodle” and “Girl I Left Behind Me” need no introduction, but some lesser-known others, such as “America, Commerce, and Freedom,” “Jackson’s Welcome Home,” ” Durang’s Hornpipe,” “Hull’s Victory,” “Adams and Liberty” [“Star-Spangled Banner”], and “Tid-Re-I” all found their way to the early 19th century fifer, either in manuscript or print. But it’s the Carroll tunes, which provide a rare glimpse into the musical mind of a talented military fifer, that are especially interesting to this writer.
Music of the War of 1812 in America is spiral bound for easy use and printed on good stock with durable, wipe-clean covers. Consult the companion website, http://www.1812music.org/downloads.htm, for even more information, including audio tracks of the music in the book.
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