The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXVI. Patriotic Songs and Hymns

§ 1. Patriotic Songs

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.