Our National Airs
( Originally Published 1920 )
BY Louts C. ELSON.
WAR is almost impossible without songs, and the music of "Yankee Doodle" being played by the British troops marching to Lexington, it was adopted by the patriots under the name of the "Lexington March." It had been introduced into Boston nearly ten years before by the British army and used to insult the pious Puritans on Sunday, with various doggerel verses containing local thrusts. " `Yankee Doodle' began and ended the Revolution," for the victorious Americans, remembering Lexington, played it while Cornwallis' troops marched out of York-town. It was, perhaps, first officially recognized as a national American air at Ghent, at a banquet given in honor of the American treaty commissioners in 1814, when Henry Clay's colored body-servant whistled it for the bandmaster, who harmonized and reproduced it.
"America" or "God Save the Queen" really belongs to England, but it certainly has the qualities of a national anthem, for it has been adopted by no less than six nations,, and Handel's Austrian hymn is reminiscent of it, although written with the avowed purpose of giving that country something which should be distinctive and fill the same place for the Austrian that "God Save the King" did then in England. It had several American settings before its present one by Mr. Smith.
"Hail Columbia" is regarded as the American national song by Europeans, and this is not unfitting, as both words and music are native. It was written as a march and called the "President's March" before Hopkinson fitted words to it for an actor friend during the political excitement of 1798. "The Star-Spangled Banner" is sung to the tune of a jolly English drinking song, "To Anacreon in Heaven," and the author himself fitted it to the music. Other American settings had been given to the music before, one by Robert Treat Paine, Jr., on "Adams and Liberty," a political song.
The war of 1812 produced a crop of crude but dashing sea songs, one of which recites the tale of the fight of the Constitution and the Guerriere. The Civil War produced many songs, but few of any partitular merit. It is a curious fact that "Dixie," the greatest of the war songs, was of northern origin, and "John Brown" was a southern Sunday-school air transplanted to Fort Warren, where its original words were supplanted by a satire on a Scotchman of the Twelfth Massachusetts. Then "John Brown's Body," as it had become, was carried southward by the moving regiment, and was caught up in New York and elsewhere. It has become one of the great marching songs of the world and is sung everywhere; it cheered Kitchener's soldiers in the Soudan, and was heard on the battlefields of South Africa.
While Dr. and Mrs. Howe were in the South they heard the soldiers, just after a skirmish, singing "John Brown's Body." Rev. James Freeman Clarke, who accompanied them, said to Mrs. Howe: "You ought to write some better words for that." She answered: "I will try," and the result was "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."