History and other stuff to know about American patriotic songs

June 20, 2014

Stuff to know about American patriotic songs

June 30, 2014                                  Tom Riis

            Independence Day is right around the corner and the sounds of American patriotic songs that encourage national unity and feelings of honor for our forefathers will soon fill the air. But while many of these songs honor America’s past, their roots lie in English tradition, says Tom Riis (Reece), professor of musicology at CU-Boulder’s College of Music.

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History and other stuff to know about American patriotic songs

June 27, 2014                                  Tom Riis

            Independence Day is right around the corner and the sounds of American patriotic songs that encourage national unity and feelings of honor for our forefathers will soon fill the air. But while many of these songs honor America’s past, their roots lie in English tradition, says Tom Riis (Reece), professor of musicology at CU-Boulder’s College of Music.

CUT 1 “The English traditions are prominent in the English colonies. The very first patriotic music published in America was in this pre-revolutionary era, 1768. (:12) It was a song called the Liberty Song about the whole idea of what was called the Sons of Liberty, but it is sung to the tune of Heart of Oak. It was a well-known tune in England.” (:24)

Riis, who is also the director of CU-Boulder’s American Music Research Center, says using a well-known tune such as Heart of Oak and applying it to a new song or ballad was quite common in early America. He says the reason for that is many early patriotic songs were actually ballads printed on broadsheets posted in towns telling of a political event or a heroic act. And the best way to get people to remember it was to attach a catchy familiar tune.

CUT 2 “And then often it would say, ‘To be sung to the tune of,’ and of course the tune would be something very familiar. And that way you could immediately get information out -- people are reading the information presumably. (:12) But also you can sing it and of course music, as we know, has that wonderful kind of, I call it, ‘adhesive quality.’ You know it’s easier if someone says to you, ‘Can you recite the national anthem?’ Most everybody I know will immediately think, ‘Oh, say.’ You’ll think of the tune along with the words.” (:30)

            Speaking of the national anthem, Riis says it’s another ballad with a tune from an old English song but a song that was somewhat dubious in its time.

CUT 3 “Our national anthem, of course, is one of my favorite stories to tell. Of course the words by Francis Scott Key are famous, ‘Oh say can you see by the dawn’s early light.’ (:09) But the tune to which Key referred in the original publication of those words in 1814 was a song called To Anacreon in Heaven -- Anacreon being a somewhat rambunctious god. It’s about drinking. It’s a drinking song.” (:26)      

            By the end of the Civil War Riis says marching songs like When Johnny Comes Marching Home and The Battle Hymn of the Republic were popular, eliciting pride and emotion in people. Eventually this led to the rise of military bands that produced many songs. And one figure in particular popularized these songs to a point they became known worldwide, says Riis.

CUT 4 “There’s only, probably, three or four major kinds of American music that make it around the world from the 19th century. One of them is, of course, the famous marches of John Philip Sousa, which don’t only celebrate America but very much stand in for America in many ways. (:17) Sousa toured the world and became a symbol of American unity and peace but also power and harmony, in the literal sense of course.” (:29)

            It wasn’t until 1931 that the The Star Spangled Banner officially became America’s national anthem.  Before 1931, other songs served as America’s national hymn. Hail, Columbia was played at official functions for much of the 19th century. And My Country Tis of Thee, whose melody is, coincidentally, the same as God Save the Queen, the British national anthem, also served as a de facto anthem.

-CU-

 

 

 

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