Satirizing the Revolution through Popular Song

Arts & Literature

March 16, 2016
by Michelle Porter Also by this Author


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Think of Revolutionary War lyrics. Does a ditty about a dandified bumpkin out on the town come to mind? “Yankee Doodle” was just one of many satires written during the American Revolution. A wealth of wit pervaded poetry that filled newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic. Most verses were satires set to the tunes of popular ballads. Using a well-known tune enabled a satirist to disseminate new verses quickly, thereby ensuring his song’s popularity. Since the majority of eighteenth century tunes and marches were verse-chorus in format, the style facilitated group singing and camaraderie. A lead singer could belt the verses from a broadside while the crowd sang the easily-learned chorus.

“Heart of Oak” (often called “Hearts of Oak”) was a song composed by William Boyce, Composer to Chapel Royal and the King, and Master of the Royal Band of Music.[1] The lyrics, by famed British actor David Garrick, celebrated four great British victories in 1759, the “Annus Mirabilis” or year of wonders. One of those victories was the Battle of the Plains of Abraham fought outside the walls of Quebec. Not surprisingly, the song became popular in the American colonies.

Come, cheer up, m’ lads, ’tis to glory we steer,
To add something more to this wonderful year;
To honour we call you, as freemen not slaves,
For who are so free as the sons of the waves?

Heart of Oak are our ships,
Jolly Tars are our men,
We always are ready:
Steady, boys, Steady!
We’ll fight and we’ll conquer again and again.

John Dickinson, a Delaware farmer and statesman, was dubbed “The Penman of the Revolution” in no small part due to his series of “Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer.”[3] In July 1768, he added the “Liberty Song”[4] to his literary efforts. Nine stanzas, mostly composed by Dickinson,[5] were set to the tune Heart of Oak.

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 freemen our money we’ll give.

How sweet are the labors that freemen endure,
That they shall enjoy all the profit, secure—
No more such sweet labors Americans know,
If Britons shall reap what Americans sow. …

Then join hand in hand brave Americans all,
By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall;
In so righteous a cause let us hope to succeed,
For heaven approves of each glorious deed.[6]

It is interesting how Dickinson purported that the colonists were more than willing to pay taxes if they were treated as freemen by having representation in Parliament. Although Dickinson favored a conciliatory approach toward Great Britain, he sent the original draft of this song to Son of Liberty and firebrand James Otis.[7] The result, as Dickinson no doubt counted on, was quick publication in the Boston Gazette and instant popularity.

Despite the song’s obvious civility, a Loyalist parody[8] appeared two months later in September 1768, just as British troops began arriving in Boston. It consisted of ten stanzas, for good measure. 

Come shake your dull noddles, ye pumpkins, and bawl,
And own that you’re mad at fair Liberty’s call;
No scandalous conduct can add to your shame,
Condemn’d to dishonor, inherit the same.

In folly you’re born, and in folly you’ll live,
To madness still ready,
And stupidly steady
Not as men but as monkeys the tokens you give.

Your grandsire, old Satan, now give him a cheer,
Would act like yourselves, and as wildly would steer,

So great an example in prospect still keep,
Whilst you are alive, Old Belza may sleep.

Such villains, such rascals, all dangers despise,
And stick not at mobbing when mischief’s the prize;
They burst through all barriers, and piously keep
Such chattels and goods the vile rascals can sweep.  

Then plunder, my lads, for when red coats appear,
You’ll melt like the locust when winter is near;
Gold vainly will glow, silver vainly will shine,
But, faith, you must skulk, you no more shall purloin. 

Then nod your poor numskulls, ye pumpkins, and bawl,
The de’il take such rascals, fools, whoresons and all;
Your cursed old trade of purloining must cease,
The dread and the curse of all order and peace. [9]

This parody was likewise published in the Boston Gazette. Its authorship was anonymous. A cryptic note merely stated that it had “made its appearance from a garret at Castle William,” the fortification in Boston Harbor where troops were barracked.[10] It can be posited that this parody could just as easily have been written by Patriots to fuel hatred of Loyalists as vice versa.

“Derry Down”[11] was already considered a folk tune when, around 1766, “The Old Woman Taught Wisdom” was published in London’s Gentleman’s Magazine. The song was an allegory about Great Britain and her American colonies, written the year of the Stamp Act’s repeal.

Goody Bull and her daughter together fell out,
Both squabbled, and wrangled, and made a damn rout,
But the cause of the quarrel remains to be told,
Then lend both your ears, and a tale I’ll unfold. 

Derry down, down, hey derry down
Then lend both your ears, and a tale I’ll unfold.[12]

After the Boston Massacre, British troops evacuated the city to the Castle William on Castle Island.[13] A broadside soon appeared with the “Castle William Song.”

You simple Bostonians, I’d have you beware,
Of your Liberty Tree, I would have you take care,
For if that we chance to return to the town,
Your houses and stores will come tumbling down.

Derry down, down, hey derry down.
Your houses and stores will come tumbling down. 

If you will not agree to Old England’s laws,
I fear that King Hancock will soon get the yaws:
But he need not fear, for I swear we will
For the want of a doctor give him a hard pill. 

A brave reinforcement we soon think to get;
Then we will make you poor pumpkins to sweat:
Our drums they’ll rattle, and then you will run
To the devil himself, from the sight of a gun. 

Our fleet and our army, they soon will arrive,
Then to a bleak island, you shall not us drive.
In every house, you shall have three or four,
And if that will not please you, you shall have half a score.[14]

Patriots, however, were proving equally adept at satire. “The Banks of the Dee”[15] is a Scottish classic depicting a young lass returning alone to a trysting place because her lover has shipped out to the American war.

‘Twas summer, and softly the breezes were blowing,
And sweetly the nightingale sang from the tree.
At the foot of a hill, where the river was flowing,
I sat myself down on the Banks of the Dee

But now he’s gone from me, and left me thus mourning,
To quell the proud rebels, for valiant is he;
But ah! There’s no hope of his speedy returning
To wander again on the banks of the Dee:
He’s gone, hapless youth, o’er the rude roaring billows,
The kindest, the sweetest of all his brave fellows.[16]

Oliver Arnold, of Norwich, Connecticut, altered the verses into a parody.[17]

‘Twas winter, and blue Tory noses were freezing
As they march’d o’er the land where they ought not to be;
The valiants complain’d at the fifer’s cursed wheezing,
And wish’d they’d remained on the banks of the Dee.
Lead on thou paid captain! Tramp on thou proud minions!
Thy ranks, basest men, shall be strung like ripe onions. 

Prepare for war’s conflict; or make preparation
For peace with the rebels, for they’re brave and glee;
Keep mindful of dying, and leave the foul nation
That sends out its armies to brag and to flee.
Make haste, now, and leave us thou miscreant Tories!
To Scotland repair! There court the sad houris,
And listen once more to their plaints and their stories
Concerning the “glory and pride of the Dee.”[18]

Oliver Arnold was known as a sailor, an extemporaneous rhymester, and a bit of an eccentric. He would spend hours roaming the countryside, and enigmatically died on one of those treks.[19] Oliver came from a patriotic but financially plagued family that apparently also struggled with given names for boys. He and his older brother, Freegift,[20] received support from a cousin in the Continental Army. That cousin was named Benedict.

Philip Freneau was a notable American writer who was as outspoken in literature as in life. Even before he was confined on a British prison ship for six weeks, he incorporated biting satire, at times bordering on the obscene,[21] into his poems. Personal lampoons on the enemy were another popular mode of expression, and Freneau had a special affinity for satirizing individuals.

Great Britain’s Prince William Henry joined the Royal Navy at age thirteen, and, three years later, was sent to the American war. Though he never saw combat and soon left for the West Indies, there seem to be traces of psychological warfare in the time and place of his arrival. It was September 1781, mere days before the siege of Yorktown, and an eventual victory no Briton would have predicted. William Henry landed in New York, which was still held by the British. While there, he met Capt. Horatio Nelson who became enamored with the young prince and later wrote, “He is a seaman, which you could hardly suppose. He will be a disciplinarian, and a strong one. He says he is determined every person shall serve his time before they shall be provided for, as he is obliged to serve his. … With the best temper and great good sense, he cannot fail of being pleasing to every one.”[22]

Freneau proved this statement wrong in “The Royal Adventurer.”

Prince William of the Brunswick race,
To witness George’s sad disgrace
The Royal Lad came over
Rebels to kill by Right Divine—
Deriv’d from that illustrious line
The beggars of Hanover. 

So many chiefs got broken pates
In vanquishing the rebel States,
So many nobles fell,
That George the Third in passion cry’d
“Our royal blood must now be try’d,
‘Tis that must break the spell: 

“To you (the fat pot-valiant swine,
To Digby, said) Dear friend of mine,
To you I trust my boy.
The rebel tribes shall quake with fears,
Rebellion die when he appears,
My Tories leap with joy.”  

“Prince William comes!”—the Britons cry’d—
“The glory of our empire wide
Shall now be soon restor’d;
Our monarch is in William seen,
He is the image of our queen,
Let William be ador’d!” 

The Tories came with long address,
With poems groan’d the Royal press,
And all in William’s praise—
The boy astonish’d look’d about
To find their vast dominions out,
Then answer’d in amaze,  

“I am of royal birth, ‘tis true,
But what, alas! can princes do,
No armies to command?
Cornwallis conquer’d and distrest—
Sir Henry Clinton grown a jest—
I curse—and leave the land.”[23]

The meter of this verse fits a British popular song, “The Watery God.”[24] That song recounts how the Roman god of the sea heard of England’s victories during the Seven Years’ War, and reached a monumental decision. Notice how Freneau’s verses are the antithesis of those heroic lyrics.

Neptune with wonder heard the story
Of GEORGE’S rule and Britain’s glory,
Which time can ne’er subdue;
Boscawen’s deeds and Saunders’ fame,
Join’d to great Wolf’s immortal name,
And cried, can this be true? 

A king! he needs must be a god,
Who holds such heroes at his nod,
To conquer earth and sea;
I give my trident and my crown,
A tribute due to such renown;
Great George shall rule for me.[25]

As “The Liberty Song” proved, the Stamp Act and all following taxes were instrumental in sowing most seeds of rebellion, including literary ones. In a 1779 poem titled “American Taxation,” Connecticut schoolmaster Peter St. John reminded his countrymen—and King George—of the reason for the American Revolution. These verses were set to the still-famous tune, British Grenadiers.

Our fathers were distresséd,
While in their native land;
By tyrants were oppresséd
As we do understand;
For freedom and religion
They were resolved to stray,
And trace the desert regions
Of North America  

We are their bold descendants,
For liberty we’ll fight,
The claim to independence
We challenge as our right
We never will knock under,
O George, we do not fear
The rattling of your thunder,
Nor lightning of your spear!

I’ll tell you, George, in metre,
If you’ll attend awhile;
We’ve forced your bold Sir Peter
From Sullivan’s fair isle
We made your Howe to tremble
With terror and dismay;
True heroes we resemble
In North America.[26]

Popular songs are an entertaining way to rediscover the emotional climate of an era. Reading these verses today we remember men and battles. We also remember that the American Revolution was about more than that. It was a cause divine enough to die for and human enough to smile at.


[1] James D. Brown and Stephen S. Stratton, British Musical Biography: A Dictionary of Musical Artists, Authors and Composers, Born in Britain and Its Colonies (Birmingham: S. S. Stratton, 1897), 55.

[2] Listen to Heart of Oak .

[3] While Dickinson is remembered as a Delaware native, the colony did not officially exist under British rule. It was considered as three lower counties (Kent, New Castle, and Sussex) along the Delaware River of Pennsylvania. Hence, Dickinson wrote as a farmer from Pennsylvania. Delaware declared its “independence” from Pennsylvania on June 15, 1776, thereby providing needed votes at the Continental Congress for independence from Great Britain.

[4] Listen to The Liberty Song .

[5] Prior to publication, Dickinson wrote, “My worthy friend, Dr. Charles Lee, a gentleman of distinguished family, ability, and patriotism, in Virginia, composed eight lines of it.” John Dickinson to James Otis, probably June – July, 1768. Frank Moore, Songs and Ballads of the American Revolution (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1856), 36.

[6] Ibid., 37-39.

[7] Ibid., 36.

[8] Hear this parody on the audio CD “The Birth of Liberty—Music of the American Revolution” (New World Records, 1996).

[9] Moore, Songs and Ballads, 41-43.

[10] Ibid., 41.

[11] Listen to the tune Derry Down .

[12] Moore, Songs and Ballads, 33.

[13] Ibid., 53.

[14] Ibid., 51-52.

[15] Listen to The Banks of the Dee .

[16]  Moore, Songs and Ballads, 79.

[17] Listen to The Parody .

[18]  Moore, Songs and Ballads, 81.

[19] History of New London County, Connecticut, With Biographical Sketches of Many of Its Pioneers and Prominent Men, edited by D. Hamilton Hurd (Philadelphia: J. W. Lewis & Co., 1882), 287.

[20] Freegift would go on to serve under John Paul Jones. His health suffered from those rugged months at sea, and he died after his return. Ibid.

[21] James Rivington, publisher of Rivington’s Royal Gazette in New York, was one of Freneau’s favorite targets. In a poem titled “Rivington’s Last Will,” Freneau has the publisher bequeath various possessions to famous British generals and even the devil. Rivington requests that one of his beneficiaries will return to him a vial of “Hannay’s infallible Wash,” which was a treatment for venereal disease. For more on Rivington’s sideline in apothecaries, see John L. Smith, Jr., “Henry Knox, Drug Dealer?Journal of the American Revolution, February, 2014.

[22] John Knox Laughton, “William IV” (1900). Used by permission of Dr. Marjie Bloy, site founder.

[23] Philip Morin Freneau, The Poems of Philip Freneau. Written Chiefly During the Late War (Philadelphia: printed by Francis Bailey, 1786), 237-239.

[24] Listen to The Watery God with another set of American lyrics (not by Freneau).

[25] New England Historical and Genealogical Society, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Vol. XII (Boston: Samuel G. Drake, 1858), 320.

[26] Moore, Songs and Ballads, 9-11 and 13-14.


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