Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads Project

Verses in Vogue with the Vulgar

Finding the Music for the Lyrics

For the song lyrics, identification of the intended tune is vital to understanding the full meaning of the text. Many songs are satires based on earlier texts, and the reference to that text through the words or the tune indication often adds considerable depth to the understanding of the new text. Since no music is given in the broadside editions and only 19 of the texts have indicated tunes, a considerable amount of research was needed to identify contemporary associated or original tunes. A close familiarity with a wide range of song texts, variant titles, internal lines, and verse forms in British and American sources was needed for this task. We have been able to identify music for 237 of the 371 texts that were probably intended to be sung.

The ground rules for evaluating and then setting associated tunes to the Thomas texts is basically the same as those for evaluating, reassembling, and editing any other historical text whose elements have been separated by time or the medium of preservation. Application of those rules to this study may be summarized by the following points.

1. The association of a tune with a Thomas text must be demonstrable by standard historical procedures. Ideally, the tunes and the basic text ought to be found together in a primary source that dates reasonably close to that of the broadside copy.[1]

2. The text and tune should fit together easily, without manipulation of either, except for the usual small adjustments of rhythm to fit syllabic changes from verse to verse, which are necessary with most multi-verse songs and ballads.

3. The same basic text means that a Thomas text and a matching printed or manuscript text tells the same story in the same verse style with mostly the same words in mostly the same order. Minor word differences and differences in punctuation and capitalization are ignored unless they change the meaning.

4. Basic tune is analogous to basic text.

5. An indicated tune is one form of association and is illustrated on Brother Sailor: An Address to Sailors. Tune, Indian Chief. Tracing an indicated tune to a primary source usually means that the tune, when found, will be with a different text, the text that gave it its name.

In 1813 the public had a large mental repertory of tunes they could instantly match up with texts. This was the strength of the broadside as a popular medium. Much could be inferred through reference to a tune that may have had other texts. Texts based on preexisting texts were called “parodies.” Writing political or topical songs developed on the references and meanings of other songs was a literary skill much exercised throughout the eighteenth and well into the nineteenth century in both the old and the new world. During the Revolutionary War, even parodies on parodies were written, and one of these lasted until 1812, printed on a sheet in the Thomas collection: from The Liberty Song set to the tune of “Heart of Oak,” beginning “Come join hand in hand, brave Americans all,” to a loyalist parody beginning “Come shake your dull Noddles, ye Pumpkins and bawl,” to The Massachusetts Song of Liberty, beginning “Come swallow your bumpers, ye Tories and roar.” Broadsides and newspapers provided the rapid dissemination that these topical songs needed for the power of their lyrics to have effect.


A printed song is in some ways like one of Plato’s metaphorical shadows of ideals. In that Platonic sense, a song only exists while it is being performed. In essence then, a song is a temporal trilogy of words, music, and musician.

For a reader who wishes to be a sympathetic singer, simplicity and clear enunciation should be the guiding standards for all of the songs, whether genteel, folk, or something in between. The Embargo for instance, which was probably first presented with an accompanying fortepiano or even a small orchestra of winds and strings, was composed for an elite, public, political performance. Tom Starboard, however, was sung after a play in Richmond, Virginia, “without accompaniment,” according to a newspaper advertisement placed in the Enquirer on December 14, 1809. The religious songs Brother Sailor and Spiritual Soldier’s Uniform could have been sung loudly in the fervor of a religious camp meeting, and also probably without instrumental accompaniment. Paine’s Death of General Wolfe (see also The Death of General Wolfe and The Death of General Wolf) would likely have been performed with a keyboard accompaniment and perhaps occasionally a flute obligato. General Burgoyne’s Lamentation is an enlisted man’s campfire ballad. It was probably sung unaccompanied or backed by a fife and drumsticks on a table or perhaps a log, if no table was at hand.[2] The Two Lovers of Exeter and the common Death of General Wolfe certainly should be sung without accompaniment and in a free-flowing style that does not emphasize a beat.[3]

The Spanish guitar is historically inappropriate for use with most of the songs in this collection. Ubiquitous as accompaniment for what was called folk song in the late twentieth century, it was scarcely known in many parts of the United States in 1812. The English guitar was the plucked instrument that appeared in ladies’ parlors across the new nation. The Spanish guitar was generally used by theatrical and upper-class performers in the late eighteenth century. Not until the 1830s would the European craze called Guitaromanie bring the Spanish guitar into modest prominence in the United States as an occasional alternative to the fortepiano for middle-class parlor songs. By then guitars were made in America and cheap and durable enough to be played at all levels of society.

[1] During the last fifty years many writers who republished broadsides and other historical song texts for singing were content to set the old texts to folk tunes collected in the twentieth century on the mistaken assumption that these were automatically close to the tunes to which the ballads would have been sung. This musical mixing and matching sometimes combined tunes and texts separated by two or three centuries and hundreds of miles without a wisp of documentation or association to connect them.

[2] Moore, Diary 1:254 cites a letter from Captain Caleb Gibbs of Washington’s Guard, which describes such singing and playing: “After the toasts, little Phil, of the Guard, was brought in to sing H—’s new campaign song, and was joined by all the under officers who seemed much animated by the accompanying of Clute’s drum sticks and Aaron’s fife.” 

[3] Of all of the Thomas ballads composed by or for the folk, only The Death of General Wolfe has been sensitively recorded by an expert in the unaccompanied style. Frank and Anne Warner collected a variant called “Montcalm and Wolfe” in the Adirondacks in the 1940s, and he sings it, unaccompanied, on Songs and Ballads of America’s Wars, released by Electra in 1954.