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

XXVII. Oral Literature

§ 3. Early Popular Song

An early mention of popular song in America occurs in an entry in the diary of Cotton Mather for 27 September, 1713:

“I am informed, that the Minds and Manners of many people about the Countrey are much corrupted by foolish Songs and Ballads, which the Hawkers and Peddlars carry into all parts of the Countrey. By way of antidote, I would procure poetical Composures full of Piety, and such as may have a Tendency to advance Truth and Goodness, to be published, and scattered into all Corners of the Land. There may be an extract of some, from the excellent Watt’s Hymns.”

Doubtless many legendary and romantic ballads were brought from England by the colonists, but probably Mather’s “foolish songs and ballads” did not refer to these but rather to convivial, sentimental, or humorous ditties, the street pieces or broadsides popular in the mother country. These he would like to see replaced by religious and moralizing songs. Most songs, of either type, in the period before the Revolution, were probably imported, either orally or in broadside versions; but there were also historical pieces that were indigenous. Professor Tyler, writing in 1878, mentions as ballads popular in New England The Gallant Church, Smith’s Affair at Sidelong Hill, and The Godless French Soldier. These pieces do not appear in printed collections, however, and, in general, little has been done in the way of an attempt to recover songs from the period before the Revolution. The oldest remaining historical ballad composed in America of which texts are available is Lovewell’s Fight, recording a struggle with the Indians in Maine, 8 May, 1725. It was composed not long after the event, and was long popular in New England. A text reduced to print almost a century later begins:

  • What time the noble Lovewell came,
  • With fifty men from Dunstable,
  • The cruel Pequa’tt tribe to tame
  • With arms and bloodshed terrible.
  • Longfellow chose the same subject for his early poem The Battle of Lovell’s Pond.

    Greater effort has been made toward collecting songs and ballads of the Revolution, though the work should be done again more exhaustively and more critically. Frank Moore printed in 1856 a collection of verse, brought together from newspapers, periodicals, broadsides, and from the memory of surviving soldiers. Most of these pieces are semi-literary in character, to be sung to familiar tunes imported from England. That oftenest quoted as having the best poetical quality is Nathan Hale. Many express the discontent of the colonists, and many are burlesques. Sometimes they were based on older pieces, as Major André’s The Cow Chace, which is built on The Chevy Chase. Of better quality is A Song for the Red-coats, on the defeat of Burgoyne.

  • Give ear unto my story,
  • And I the truth will tell
  • Concerning many a soldier
  • Who for his country fell.
  • Some of the most popular pieces of the Revolutionary period, mostly satirical verses by known authors, have been treated in an earlier chapter.

    From the War of 1812 remain James Bird, a ballad of a hero shot for desertion, texts of which have drifted as far inland as the Central states, and a camp song in ridicule of General Packingham. Some verses beginning

  • Then you sent out your Boxer to beat us all about;
  • We had an enterprising Brig to beat the Boxer out,
  • and some stanzas preserved as a marching song for children—
  • We’re marching down to old Quebec
  • While the drums are loudly beating—
  • may also date back this far. The Texas Rangers, widely current through the South and the West, and modelled on the British Nancy of Yarmouth, sounds like an echo of the fight with the Mexicans at the Alamo in 1835.

    Songs surviving from the Civil War are frequently sentimental in character, like When this Cruel War is Over and The Blue and the Gray. These are of traceable origin, yet they have passed widely into oral tradition. There were numerous camp songs on sieges or battles, but these have not shown vitality. Best remembered in popular literature from the time of the Civil War are many negro, or rather pseudonegro songs, given diffusion by the old-time itinerant negro minstrels. Many are the work of composers like Stephen C. Foster or Henry C. Work. These persist in popular memory side by side with songs like Juanita or Lorena, or the later After the Ball. Every collector of folk-song comes upon pieces of this type far oftener than upon songs commemorating battles or political events. In similar manner, the popular song given currency by the Cuban War, A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight, modelled on a Creole song, does not reflect directly the war that “floated” it. Nor do the songs universalized for England and America by the war of 1914—Tipperary, Keep the Home Fires Burning, Over There, The Long, Long Trail—commemorate its leading events.