Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads Project

Verses in Vogue with the Vulgar

Modes and Voices of Early American Song: An Introduction

By Dianne Dugaw

Ballad SingerImage from The History and Adventures of Little William (1819)


On a sunny day in Boston in the early spring of 1813, pedestrians dart between carriages and wagons that jostle in the stone streets. At the corner a grey-haired woman extends her arm, sheets of ballads in her hand to sell. “Come all you who delight in frolicsome songs,” she bellows, singing a ribald ballad of cuckoldry, followed by an account of a murder and hanging and then a political satire. Some people take notice. A young clerk, ledgers in hand, stops to buy the satire and hurries on. Two teenage girls approach and ask for “the one about the girl sailing aboard ship as a surgeon’s mate.” The ballad is found and bought, and the two meander farther down the street, passing a bookseller with a sign near the open door: “BEST PRICES ON BOOKS, PAMPHLETS, GAZETTES, & GARLANDS; ALL THE NEWEST PLAYS AND SONGS FROM THE THEATRES & PUBLIC PLACES IN PHILADELPHIA, BALTIMORE, NEW YORK, LONDON, &C.” The old ballad seller makes her way in the other direction toward the crowded square, singing at the top of her gravelly voice: “Gallants attend, and hear a friend, / Trill forth harmonious ditty: / Strange things I’ll tell, which late befell / In Philadelphia city.” Boston goes about its business.      

The Isaiah Thomas Broadside Ballads: Verses in Vogue with the Vulgar offers an eye-opening glimpse of the city of Boston and its people in the first decade of the nineteenth century, marking a formative early phase of the republic for which this seaport played a vital cultural and commercial role. We find here material for understanding that mysterious process by which people create songs within and in response to particular matrices of events, influences, and sentiments, and then maintain some of these productions over long periods, in song traditions remembered and borne along from generation to generation. Isaiah Thomas compiled a collection of printed texts and tunes from the stock that broadside printer Nathaniel Coverly Jr. had on hand in 1813 to sell to readers and singers in Boston.

The collection supplies a unique glimpse of popular culture and sentiment, combining a range of topical songs and verses of that moment, together with a sampling of then-marketable archaic ballads, old favorites that had circulated in the Anglo-American repertoire from the Elizabethan era onward. In turn, over time, a number of the newly minted pieces from Coverly’s era would find their way into the more lasting popularity of people’s sung traditions. Orally circulating folksongs have since the eighteenth century been identified with and studied with regard to their representation of collective sensibilities of linguistic and cultural groups and subgroups. The Thomas collection brings together these vantages and modes—high and low, commercial and traditional—just as they might mix in many a song-shopper’s purchases. 

Frequently, some commercially created and disseminated songs of one generation are taken up and carried along by singers into times and places inhabited by their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so on. Becoming widely familiar folksongs in oral circulation, they articulate the values, concerns, and emotions that accompany people from event to event and from one generation to the next. Scholars trace the origins and circulation of these pieces, ponder their modes and transformations, and analyze them as revealing cultural and historical footprints. This annotated collection of texts and rarely presented tunes to which they were set offers a stunning resource for American cultural history because of its mixed and variegated songs, its thoroughly traced histories of song origins and popularity, its remarkable research into contemporary performances, and its wealth of commentary on contexts for the songs as well as on stylistic features and considerations.

The distinction between “popular” songs, authored and flourishing at a particular moment, and “folk” songs, those that persist in more longstanding and complexly oral and plebeian ways, is important to the analysis of the materials Coverly printed and Thomas collected. Paul F. Wells and Anne Dhu McLucas have usefully articulated the difference. They identify “popular music” as that which originates in the marketplace: “[it] is usually made by professionals who are in some sense paid, and it is itself a commodity. Commercial values influence its existence; deliberate promotion for sales and copyright are important factors” (99). This definition neatly depicts Coverly’s publishing business and the commercial network of the printing and selling of Boston broadsides, together with the various makers and gatherers of songs and the New England buyers and singers who comprised Coverly’s market. 

The designation of  “folk” for cultural expression—music, song, verse, dance, proverbial speech, traditional art, and so on—is a concept premised on the autonomous and shared currency of a work or activity in a community over time and space—that is, when people keep it in circulation beyond and independent of the commercial marketplace. Wells and McLucas describe “folk music”

as music that has passed into oral tradition, with the result that the music and/or text shows traits of multiformity and diffusion in a tradition. For this definition, the test of folk music is that one can find variant versions spread over time and space, showing community acceptance with the freedom for each performer to recreate it in his or her own style. (99)

As Arthur Schrader and Kate Van Winkle Keller’s notes to individual pieces in this website show, the songs here represent both types: some remained “popular,” ephemeral pieces performed only during their immediate season of commercial promotion, while others moved into the “folk” stream of people’s oral traditions. Together they represent the vibrantly intersecting modes of early American song culture—commercial and noncommercial, novel and longstanding, public and private, oral and written.

Songs, singing, and song-making, both oral and written, as well as poetic and dramatic recitations, were integral to eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century living and thinking. One of European and Euro-American culture’s great amateur music-making moments, that epoch saw a proliferation of popular poetry and song in general, which functioned more variously and pervasively than these forms do in our popular culture now.[1] Today, songs are primarily entertainment or ceremonial forms, more likely lyrical than narrative, more imaginative and emotion-oriented than documentary. Diverting us from the “real business” of our daily lives, they bring us together in communities of taste and, to a lesser degree, of heritage, belief, or observance. As important as these features of songs are to us, they serve a relatively narrow range of functions.

To convey what the ballads and songs of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century America then combined in a single form now requires a panoply of separate media: not only (1) popular sung pieces offered as diversion, whether showcased in professional concerts or music dramas or enjoyed in amateur participatory performance; but also (2) journalism in newspaper, magazine, radio, television, or Internet dissemination (including blogs and YouTube) that is meant to inform and/or direct public opinion; (3) political cartoons that lampoon and satirize people and happenings; and (4) stand-up comedy routines that likewise ridicule, rail, and comment upon public matters. Coverly’s song-wares served broadside buyers variously in all four of these functions as people purchased songs to entertain themselves and to remind themselves of theatrical diversions, to report on historical events both current and past, to celebrate or satirize local and national political figures, and to lament tragedies or laugh at life’s absurdities. Ballads and songs functioned in Isaiah Thomas’s and Nathaniel Coverly’s world with cultural centrality and multifaceted public significance.

Songs in European-derived cultures are public and collective forms. That is, in early nineteenth-century New England, as in mainstream America today, songs are almost exclusively enacted and experienced as shared, public expression among people gathered into sundry groups—family members singing around a campfire, audience members at a concert, churchgoers in a congregation, guests at a wedding reception, and so on. (By contrast, some African, Aboriginal, Asian, and Native American cultures also create and perform songs as solitary expressive or meditative phenomena.) Whether folk or popular, the songs on this website represent the collectivized responses and attitudes of early nineteenth-century New Englanders to events both current and historical. They give voice to shared conventions, as well as inventions, of communication, creation, belief, and entertainment, and open a window for us onto the world as it looked to early nineteenth-century Bostonians.

Definitions: Song Forms

The gallimaufry of early American songs in this collection may be usefully differentiated by rubrics that song scholars have formulated. These categories divide types of songs in Anglo-American popular tradition based upon their textual modes. Folklorists and literary scholars and, to a degree, scholars of music, distinguish between narrative—a song that elaborates a series of actions involving protagonists to tell a story—and nonnarrative—a song that expresses sentiments and ideas only, without plot or characters. This terminology reserves “ballad” for the former; “lyric” tends to be used for the latter. Thus, the word “ballad” as strictly used by scholars (whether literary historians, musicologists, or folklorists—and often in contrast to singers themselves) is a narrative or storytelling popular song with words organized in a stanzaic structure, each stanza fitting a recurring tune.[2] The term “lyric” in folksong scholarship tends to supply a comprehensive category for the remainder of songs people are found singing, such as laments, satirical attacks, and songs of praise or folly. Roger deV. Renwick has observed with regard to scholarship on popular song: “We have nothing else approaching a seminal work on any other genre [than narrative]. In fact, as the widely employed phrase ‘ballads and songs’… attests, we often lump all other traditional songs into a catchall category after we’ve extracted the ‘ballads’…. And in fact, actual attempts to lay bare the poetics of the lyric song are exceedingly few” (60). The Thomas collection contains both narrative (ballads) and nonnarrative songs (lyrics). To clarify the importance and range of its materials, I will discuss further how to conceptualize and think about types of popular songs.

The vast scholarship on Anglo-American narrative song—the “ballad” proper in formal terms—has from its eighteenth-century origins proceeded as a collecting endeavor as scholars responded to the varied, stirring, anonymous, shared, and cumulative character of popular songs and singing traditions, characteristics apparent in the gathering of songs here (see “Ballads and Songs” and Fumerton and Guerrini). The fascination that some scholars brought to the concept of orality spurred an early attempt at dividing ballad narratives from Britain into two types. On the one hand, scholars studied and eventually collected what they designated the “traditional English and Scottish ballads” that constituted the preferred “classical” ballad type, understood to be descendant from medieval minstrelsy.[3] The scholarship on this type of narrative song proceeded from Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), one of the most popular and influential books of the eighteenth century and a work certainly known to Isaiah Thomas. On the other hand, narratives that came to be termed “broadsides” or “street ballads” tumbled from the presses of the cheapest printers from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Nathaniel Coverly fit this category of street ballad publisher. A formidable scholarship spanning more than two centuries has also been devoted to the broadside ballad, both as a popular print form and as a source of people’s singing and song traditions.[4] The antiquarian Thomas’s collecting of broadside song sheets as “popular antiquities” places him within this intellectual tide of his times.

General stylistic features differentiate between the older “traditional” type of ballad and the journalistic, “broadside” type of ballad that developed in the seventeenth century with urbanization and widespread European printing and literacy. James Moreiera describes the former as a narrative song that is “characterized chiefly by concentration on a single episode, dramatic development through dialogue and action, and objective tone and that is structurally rooted in repetitive verbal patterns and tight, balancing scenes” (Green 1:81). Such ballads have been considered to represent an older mode from a late medieval world and sensibility, persisting especially through oral channels, as well as through print in some cases, as in the broadside versions here. Coverly reprinted Chevy Chase, an old ballad in this style that renders a medieval world of feudal conflict set in the border country between Scotland and England, where the knightly foes Earl Douglas of Scotland, and Percy, Earl of Northumberland, battle with their archers to the death in one of the most published, sung, and commented upon ballads in the English language. Chevy Chase, which appears in Percy’s Reliques, was prized by such British literary figures as Joseph Addison in the eighteenth century and Walter Scott in the nineteenth, and surely would have been considered a prestigious and valued “antiquity” by Isaiah Thomas.

The second type of narrative song, the more journalistic and urban street ballad, was collected already in the seventeenth century by such scholarly and literary figures as the antiquarian John Selden and the diarist Samuel Pepys. In the nineteenth century, gentlemen scholars in Britain amassed large collections of ballad broadsides (single-sheet prints) and chapbooks (small, unbound booklets) produced by printers from the Elizabethan era to the Victorian age. No doubt Isaiah Thomas compiled the Boston broadsides for his antiquarian project with the collections of these earlier British antiquarians in his mind.[5]

Renwick describes the broadside ballad in relation to the earlier, medieval ballads such as Chevy Chase, saying that the broadside ballad “tells its story in a more linear, expository way than does the medieval ballad, which is more allusive, dramatic (with much direct, unascribed speech that retards the forward movement of the narrative), internally repetitive, and tableauxed in style.” Renwick goes on to note the “concreteness and specificity” of the broadside ballad, its tendency to render each story “particularized, situated, and contextualized” as well as more subjective, more realistic, and more urban and modern than the “adumbrated, stylized, and more homogeneous medieval ballad world” (Green 1:103-9). Coverly’s version of The Children in the Wood, a reissuing of a ballad that first appeared in English broadsides in 1595 and remained in print well into the nineteenth century, exemplifies this mode, by far the predominant one for the ballad narratives in his stock.

The Children in the Wood unfolds in the specific journalistic way, as even the opening shows, as it details particular locations, pronounces prevailing legal facts and ethical attitudes, and projects the causal outlines of its linear and moralizing plot. With an opening like an elaborate and informative newspaper headline, the broadside introduces the ballad itself as 

a true relation of the inhuman murder of two children, of a deceased gentleman of Norfolk, England, whom he left to the care of his brother; but this wicked uncle, in order to get the children’s estate, contrived to have them destroyed by two ruffians whom he hired for that purpose; with an account of the heavy judgments of God which befell him for this inhuman deed, and of the untimely end of the two bloody ruffians; to which is added a word of advice to executors.

After this headlining overview, the lengthy ballad itself then proceeds to depict this story explicitly in some 40 stanzas, totaling 160 lines of verse. The tale finishes with “A Word of Advice to Executors”:

All you who be Executors made, / And Overseers eke,

Of children that be fatherless, / and infants mild and meek,

Take you example by this thing / And yield to each his right;

Lest God by such like-misery, / Your wicked deeds requite.

The moralizing conclusion typifies the broadside ballad style.

In Coverly’s Lord Cornwallis’s Surrender, we see another example of the broadside ballad mode. This American ballad of the Revolutionary era similarly relates its story with first-person point of view, precise and urban locations, and detailed actions and specific historical identities. The ballad locates us “in the heights of York-town,” where the “brave Americans… summoned Lord Cornwallis / To fight or else give o’er.” Calling a “grand council,” the English commander Cornwallis takes stock of the details of his predicament—“Count de Grasse lies in the harbour, / And Washington’s on shore.” The ballad then reports, with typical journalistic specificity, the Yankee victory. “’Twas the ninteenth [sic] of October, / In the year eighty-one” that Cornwallis surrendered to Washington “six thousand chosen British troops /… Besides some ships and Hessians.” With a moralizing and patriotic tone typical of many of the songs in the Thomas collection, the ballad ends: “May we subdue those English troops, / And clear the eastern shore, / That we may live in peace my boys, / Whilst wars they are no more.” Such detailed first-person narration of the broadside ballad style contrasts with the impersonal, third-person narration of Chevy Chase and other ballads in the earlier, medieval mode, which focus on a single dramatic episode, take place in a feudal countryside, have few details of place or identity, and relate their stories from an understated, objective, and nonmoralizing sensibility.

In addition to its narrative ballads on varied topics, the Thomas collection has many nonnarrative or “lyric” songs. Renwick, exploring the generative structures of popular songs that are not narrative, proposes expanding the terrain of Anglo-American traditional song into three categories, “ballads,” “lyrics,” and “catalogues,” to help us think with more nuance about the ways that nonnarrative popular songs cohere and convey their meanings. He outlines the parameters of the three governing strategies:

A lyric folksong does not so much examine a situation by listing salient component parts (as catalog folksongs, often called just songs, do) or re-create an event by recounting the sequence of its stages from beginning, through middle, to end (as ballads do) as it expresses an emotional reaction to a significant experience.  

As Renwick says, the lyric is “the traditional song type that ‘expresses’ rather than ‘depicts’ or ‘narrates’” (Green 1:343). Elsewhere Renwick summarizes the three modes. “In our shorthand characterizations, we say that a ballad ‘tells a story,’ while a lyric ‘expresses emotion.’ A catalogue song in contrast articulates its images additively: it inventories or lists them so that they constitute an assemblage of parts” (62).[6] These latter elements unfold through syntactic patterns of accreting images that Renwick characterizes as enumerative, iterative, incremental, cumulative, and dialogic.

Renwick’s structural approach to the generative poetics of popular song offers useful clarity when we consider the Thomas collection. Many of the political songs here are not narratives. Thus, The American Patriot’s War Song begins in the catalogue form as “An Appeal to Freemen” to unite against English depredations that prompted the War of 1812, using a cataloguing depiction: “Britain still our sons impressing” has preyed-upon “father bemoaning” and “his captive children groaning” with various other scenes of the British fomenting the Indians’ attacks on settlers in the Northwest Territories. The song concludes with ringing calls to resist such incursions in stanzas that open with such exhorting lines as “Freemen, can you bear such slaughters?” and “Danger binds us all together.” 

As Renwick observes with regard to his three modes, “in any single song one way [of articulating images] will dominate, and for simple categorization purposes we may surely give that song a generic designation of ballad, or lyric, or… catalogue” (62). Popular songs always work in conventional ways, and it is no surprise that successful song-makers enlist all of these three modes of expression. Thus Rodgers & Victory begins as a catalogue that itemizes “wrongs and insults” from “John Bull, who has for ten years past, / Been daily growing prouder.” One of a number of songs set to the tune of and referring to “Yankee Doodle,” this shrill recounting of British affronts first demands “Tit for Tat. Or, The Chesapeake Paid for in British Blood!!!” in a cataloguing style, before the text moves into a patriotically inflated narrative summary of an 1811 sea skirmish involving an American frigate captained by Commodore John Rodgers and an English sloop-of-war marauding in Chesapeake Bay.

Throughout this collection, examples of nonnarrative lyric songs express emotion, some of them quite long and others short fillers whose emotive stanzas fill up the remaining spaces on a broadside. Lyric expression especially typifies the songs influenced and created by theatrical and literary writers. Thus, The Soldier’s Adieu by writer and performer Charles Dibdin (1745-1814), one of England’s most prolific writers of musical theater and nationalistic songs, depicts the parting remarks of a soldier to his wife. “Adieu, adieu, my only life, / My honour calls me from thee,” the song begins, and then continues through three stanzas that express the speaker’s loyalty, patriotism, and confidence in his beloved’s faithfulness. Each stanza concludes with a refrain whose flowery diction exemplifies the elevated Latinate vocabulary and sentimental, romantic tone of popular verses influenced by belles lettres and familiar through public, grammar-school education even across classes: “To heaven above thy fervent orisons are flora / The tender prayer thou put’st up there, / Shall call a guardian angel down, / To watch me in the battle.” Typical of lyric song, The Soldier’s Adieu expresses emotions and attitudes from a single point of view.

Another brief, literature-inspired song entitled “Oscar’s Ghost” appears at the end of the same broadside, again exemplifying the lyric mode. The text was penned by Anne Murray Keith of Edinburgh, a contemporary and friend of the early nineteenth-century novelist and ballad scholar Walter Scott. Keith versified excerpts of texts published in the mid-eighteenth century by James Macpherson, who claimed to have discovered remnants of the poetry of the legendary medieval Celtic bard Ossian. Macpherson created a literary sensation with his claims of translating ancient bardic poetry from the Erse language, the Scots Gaelic of the western highlands.[7] Like the Dibdin song, “Oscar’s Ghost” expresses the thoughts and feelings of a first-person speaker, who in this case witnesses the apparition of one of the Gaels of a romanticized ancient Scotland. “Oh! see that form that faintly gleams, / it’s Oscar come to cheer my dreams,” the speaker reports at the song’s outset, and then continues with the following request, “Oh! stay my lovely Oscar, stay. / Wake Ossian, last of Fingal’s line, / And mix thy sighs and tears with mine.” Typical of lyrics, “Oscar’s Ghost” renders a single emotional moment in which the speaker relates feelings and ideas, rather than the ballad’s narrative sequence of events and characters or the catalogue song’s listing of actions, ideas, and voices. 

Ballads and Songs as a Collective Voice

Isaiah Thomas’s gathering of songs, tunes, and texts came into being and survives to the present as a richly capacious collection. Precisely for this reason, it affords an important glimpse of early America. Because of the public and communal nature of Euro-American songs, they supply an index to widespread values, attitudes, and responses. Since Romanticism however, polite traditions of literature and music have been dominated by a valuing of “creativity”—individuality and invention. Popular materials by contrast are marked by close and predictable adherence to expected, conventional patterns of expression and form. In key ways, the “sense” to be made of popular songs is a public and collectivized meaning that can be arrived at only by contextualizing any single popular song with others. Apprehending this collective significance conveyed by songs is particularly apt for identifying pervasive sentiments, attitudes, and values in the defining historical moment of early nineteenth-century Boston, a society engaged in establishing an independent political system and cultural identity after the break from English rule.  

In form as well as content, the conventionality of popular songs can be recognized only by observing recurrent elements in a significant sample that repeat patterns of narrative, phrasing, music, and theme. Such conventional materials always yield their richest and most precise interpretation when we recognize their shaping patterns and preoccupations. Moreover, popular songs exist as a body of expression that is by definition oral, performative, multimedia, and public. The texts and tunes in the Thomas collection were originally sold and purchased in order to be sung, recited, and enacted in a range of contexts—for family entertainment, at public dinners or political gatherings, in pubs, aboard ships, and so on. The broadsides themselves thus served, more often than not, as prompts, offering texts and sometimes tunes that purchasers would then perform in their own ways and contexts. Thus, the Thomas collection supplies us a snapshot of a reading and singing Boston in 1813 and 1814. Such a view is significant for our understanding of early America as well as for our study of Anglo-American popular song traditions, for virtually all other extensive collections of such broadside prints are British.

A song that illustrates this idea of the collective and cumulative character of popular songs has come to be called “Yankee Doodle,” presented here chronologically in a range of variants. The Yankee’s Return from Camp opens with the lines, “Father and I went down to camp, / Along with captain Gooding,” and tells the now-familiar story of the yokel narrator’s visit to “Captain Washington’s” military camp. We have droll descriptions of the “thousand men, As rich as Squire David,” naively rendered details of various guns and armaments, satirizing pretensions of “Captain Washington, and the gentlefolks about him,” and a final image of the “snarl of men A digging graves.” Marching to its infectious tune, it is “part riddle, part satire, and part burlesque,” as editors Schrader and Keller note. This wry song and its bumpkin Yankee narrator caught the collective imagination—so much so that Americans continue to find both text and tune immediately recognizable. 

The editorial commentary and illustrations show that “Yankee Doodle” resulted from reworkings of earlier songs in several stages, each one an expressive response to events that over time took on an accumulating and irrepressible “Yankee-ness” that eventually rose up to resist colonial dominance. The earliest such text, as Schrader and Keller show, dates to the colonial period of the British campaigns of the 1740s against the French in Canada and upper New England. The jovial nonsensicalness of this early variant’s refrain already carries to our ear the wacky energy that would continue to propel the playfully resilient “Yankee” image and tune. The 1740s version of the song concludes: “I’ll run my chance and fight the French, / And that’s the Way we’ll nab ’em. Yanky doodle, doodle, / yanky doodle dydie. / Yanky doodle, doodle, / yanky doodle dydie” [italics in original].

As the song made its way from one singing and fifing gathering to the next for several generations, anonymous singers refitted it along the way with transmuting words and sentiments in response to later events. Schrader and Keller trace the circulation of various strands of the song in the colonies and the later republic. As they do so, we watch the cumulative metamorphosis of variants and the infectious distillation of the song’s collective sense and meaning. The eventual creation of our “Yankee Doodle” by one or more individual song-makers is an outcome of this process with its interplay of individual and collective expression. Understanding the song’s creation over several successive generations requires our awareness of this cumulative and collective metamorphosis. The importance of The Yankee’s Return from Camp in the American sensibility could hardly be overstated. As Schrader and Keller observe, the song “was reprinted and parodied hundreds of times.” Eight songs in the Thomas collection alone use the textual model and tune of “Yankee Doodle.”  

Songs that circulate through diverse commercial as well as noncommercial or folk channels exist as a body of expression that, as we see by the variants of “Yankee Doodle” between the 1740s and Coverly’s time, are shaped through collective acceptance and performance. Becoming widely known, performed, and recreated in the process, they persist as social phenomena. To engage this aspect of songs as cultural phenomena, scholarship must approach them in the plural and in context, analyzing individual examples not in isolation, but rather in relation to conventions, types, and traditions. Hence, the importance of collections such as Thomas’s. 

The concept of “tradition” as folklorists use it conceptualizes this cumulative and conventional character of such forms of expressive art as popular songs, including those in circulation both commercially and noncommercially. Barre Toelken defines the simultaneously “traditional” and “dynamic” subjects of folklorists’ study of such forms, which he characterizes generally as “culturally constructed communicative traditions informally exchanged in dynamic variation through space and time.” Toelken articulates this apparently paradoxical relationship of the key terms “traditional” and “dynamic” as an ongoing reciprocity between stability and change:

Tradition is a compendium of those pre-existing culture-specific materials, assumptions, and options that bear upon the performer more heavily than do his or her own personal tastes and talents. We recognize in the use of tradition that such matters as content and style have been, for the most part, passed on by the culture, but not invented by the performer. Dynamic recognizes on the other hand, that in the processing of these ideas in performance, the artist’s own unique talents of inventiveness within the tradition are highly valued and are expected to operate strongly. (37)

While Toelken, like many folklorists, focuses on the oral traditions of present-day singers, storytellers, artists, artisans, and so on, his concept of a dynamic tradition characterizes any highly conventionalized body of materials such as the popular songs of early America that occupy our attention here. Indeed, we see this paradox of the dynamic traditionality of songs exemplified in the gradually transforming “Yankee Doodle.” From Coverly’s era to our own, “Yankee Doodle” eventually became so widely and immediately identifiable for Americans that it has served as a model for countless parodying songs (political, sporting, amorous, and so on) that echo its familiar conventions of storyline, language, and tone.

Any single performance, text, or tune for a song, along with any new elements it conveys, also carries with it implicit reference to precedent versions, patterns, and performances. D. K. Wilgus urges: “In seeking to understand the meaning (in whatever sense we apply the term) of a traditional item, we need to examine as many other forms and… as many performances as possible.” Wilgus identifies the vitality of songs and the need to “construct a so-called life history of the item” and “explain the variant forms of the item as they are known to us” through analysis based on collection and comparison (5-6). The Thomas collection and Schrader and Keller’s contextualizing commentary offer materials for much future historical, cultural, and musical study.

Thomas apparently visited Coverly in 1813 and ordered copies of the printer’s entire stock of broadsides—everything in the shop. The impetus for this purchase is not certain, but possibly, as Thomas set about creating a formidable library, he had in mind the eighteenth-century European “Ballad Revival.” This interest in vernacular songs, especially those with wide currency among the lower ranks, was the focus of many literary figures, from Joseph Addison’s first literary commentary on the significance of ballads in 1711 to the Romantic poets and writers such as William Wordsworth and Walter Scott of Thomas’s own generation. In all probability, Thomas collected the popular ephemera of his Federalist era with the model of earlier English antiquarians and literary figures in mind: John Selden and Samuel Pepys in the seventeenth century; and Thomas Percy and James Boswell in the eighteenth century, who purchased broadsides from the ballad warehouse of Thomas Dicey, a publisher who served London’s popular-song buyers, as Coverly did Boston’s. Identifying himself in the “antiquarian” mode of the European collectors, scholars, and writers who preceded him, Thomas stocked his library with elite and learned materials, along with this glimpse of what the ordinary men and women on the streets of Boston were buying and singing in 1813 amidst the second war with Britain. 

The Boston audience for Coverly’s prints and songs represents an inclusive range of social registers—broader than what one finds with London publishers, whose prints were more specialized to cater specifically to one market or another. Boston had a much smaller population than London, and given the lack of titled aristocracy, narrower disparities among social ranks. Corresponding to the nature of this market, Coverly’s wares included songs in a wide range of styles, from genteel-seeming texts and tunes to those closer to the oral songs of marginally literate singers. In Britain, especially in London, no one publisher would cater to all these different markets. Coverly, by contrast, was a generalist in his marketing. With regard to the general literariness of his wares and by inference his readers, it is useful to remember that New England and especially Boston had notably literate populations because of the scripture-reading-based spirituality of Puritan upbringing. Coverly’s songs ran a gamut from ornate and flowery songs with ties to theatrical productions that suggest a prosperous and literary-minded audience, to such simply stated narratives as The Children in the Wood or Chevy Chase that had long flourished in the oral traditions of English-speaking people of lower rank. However, Coverly’s customers do not fit the divide between “polite” and “popular” culture that scholars have typically applied to broadside songs and audiences.

Two distinct songs share the title The Death of General Wolf, both named for the English hero of the Battle of Quebec in 1759. These two, respectively, illustrate the contrast between the more popular type of song catering to a plebeian taste, and a song that is more genteel and literary in its idiom. Songs in the popular vein are typically more narrative in their mode, relating a story with highly conventionalized elements. The version of The Death of General Wolf in the popular vein thus begins with a conventional invocational opening—identified by scholars as a “come-all-ye” incipit—that addresses listeners directly. Two slightly varying copies of this song in the popular mode open with this formula: “Cheer up your hearts young men let nothing fright you,” says the opening line of one print; “Come all you young men all, let nothing fright you,” begins the other. The ballad then features a scene of parting lovers, another popular song commonplace, as “Brave Wolf then took leave of his dear jewel.” In turn, the ballad presents the battle, again in conventionalized ways, as it focuses first on the two generals, Wolf and Montcalm, who “So martially between their armies walked,” and then on the fighting that followed when Wolf, “this brave hero,” was “shot from off his horse” and died, knowing that the conflict was won. This ballad, already in the popular idiom in Thomas’s era, appeared with variation on prints and continued to circulate widely enough through printed and oral means to be sung as part of American oral song traditions from Coverly’s time through the twentieth century.

The more formal and literary song about the death of Wolf strikes a very different chord. Authored by political theorist and writer Thomas Paine (1737-1809), these verses appeared in a number of magazines during the Revolutionary era before they circulated on broadsides such as Coverly’s. Both the text by Paine and its musical settings feature more ornate and abstract expression and a more elevated sensibility than the colloquial Death of General Wolf. The several musical settings of Paine’s verses likewise have more rhythmically complex and chromatic tunes than the popular ballad, as well as such heightened artfulness as elaborate trills, ornamenting grace notes, and dotted rhythms.

Paine’s text for its part depicts a mythically personified Britannia who is inconsolable over Wolf’s death, “in a sad mould’ring cave… wasted with care.” This grieving, deified figure—who represents the nation—then receives comfort in a visit from Mercury, who, sent down from Jove, tells her that “Wolf is not dead but remov’d,” borne “away in an urn” from “the plains of Quebec” to join the ranks of “the armies above.” With its enlistment of classical myth, its elevated and abstract diction, and its focus on lyric expression rather than narrative, Paine’s Death of General Wolf  exemplifies the kind of song that catered to more genteel singers. These were people who read literary magazines, frequented the theater, and favored poetry and songs filled with neoclassical and romantic flourishes, themes, and allusions. Therefore, one imagines that a print of Paine’s tribute would be pitched to a sophisticated audience of substantial social and economic rank.    

However, it is clear that Coverly’s broadsides served an audience possessing a considerable range in sophistication, for many of his printed sheets, like the one here with the two contrasting songs on Wolf, contain songs in both stylistic modes—the more “popular” and the more “polite.” Indeed, the Thomas collection suggests that scholarship has in fact made too much of this separation of sociocultural “levels” premised upon verse style and levels of diction. More accurate would be to see a much less sharply delineated division between high and low, elite and popular. In earlier America, a wide-ranging community of broadside buyers fancied songs that ran the gamut from simple and orally rooted “lowbrow” ditties and murder ballads to more sophisticated songs with elevated diction and literary and theatrical resonance. The elaborate rhyme scheme of the first song on Wolf in the more popular idiom in fact attests to a fashion for flowery literariness and poetic artifice even in the generally simpler ballad form. Moreover, Schrader and Keller suggest that both of the songs on Wolf may have been prompted by Benjamin West’s celebrated painting of Wolf’s death and by plans to erect a civic monument in honor of the general. This further suggests that Coverly’s readers as a whole had conversance with aspects of so-called polite art and culture.          

The contemporary stage, which featured plays, pantomimes, musical interludes, and theatricals of all kinds, forms an important context for the Thomas collection and may contribute to the broadsides’ stylistic “literariness.” A number of the songs have origins in or owe the impetus to their popularity in contemporary theatricals, especially locally in Boston (often transplanted from London). Stage performers—including a number of women—created the songs they performed. “The Sailor Boy,” a short lyric song published on a broadside with the ballad of “Lord Cornwallis’s Surrender,” for example, was written by Susannah Haswell Rowson, a writer and performer who first took to the stage in Britain, then played in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston in the 1790s. Her song, “The Sailor Boy,” opens with a conventional lyric formula that presents “Anna seated on a rock” watching her beloved’s ship disappearing over the horizon, and then voices her prayer to heaven for “some protecting angel near, / To hover round [her] William’s head.” Published in several editions in America and Britain as well as on Coverly’s broadside, the song was advertised as “sung at the theatres & other public places in Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, &c.”

The names of such professional theatrical and literary authors of popular songs as Susannah Rowson and Charles Dibdin are known in the historical record, and their works almost invariably fall into the flowery lyric idiom of belles lettres. By contrast, the plethora of narrative ballads that Coverly printed, created in the simpler, more direct folk idiom, tend to remain anonymous. As already noted, such ballads as “Chevy Chase” and “The Children in the Wood,” had already been flourishing traditionally and anonymously for centuries in a long stream of printed and oral renditions. Only occasionally do the names of authors of such ballads in the more popular mode come into the historical record. One exception in the Thomas collection is the sailor James Campbell, a boatswain’s mate on the Constitution who composed several ballads on sea fights. 

Coverly prominently displays Campbell’s authorship in his titling of the broadsides, showing that his audience recognized and looked for Campbell’s ballads. A New Song, Composed by James Campbell, a Boatswain’s Mate on Board the Constitution, proclaims one of the sheets. This “New Song” recounts the celebrated 1812 fight between the Constitution and the British Guerriere, the first American victory of the war. Campbell closely adheres to the broadside ballad conventions, opening with the traditional “come-all-ye” incipit and proceeding through events in first-person point of view with the journalistic detail characteristic of the style. A New Song beckons, “Come all ye yankee heroes, come listen to my song, / “I’ll tell you of a bloody fight before that it be long.” The ballad’s eight stanzas follow events of the fight—the “two broadsides” shot by the foe; the wounded “Charles Morris,” the “first lieutenant” who “cry’d now fight them well”; and the men “engag[ing] them full hot” until “her yards and masts came down.” 

A second ballad in the Thomas collection by Campbell details another 1812 sea fight that took place “On the 29th of December, being early in the day.” The broadside title announces its contents: Glorious Naval Victory, obtained by Commodore Bainbridge of the United States Frigate Constitution over his Britannic Majesty’s Frigate Java. By James Campbell, A Boatswain’s Mate on Board the Constitution. This ballad likewise follows the conventions of broadside style. “Come listen to my story the truth I will unfold,” Campbell begins, and goes on to relate events during the “Two hours and three quarters we engaged very hot” until they made the British “strike the union.” The song ends buoyantly: “So may success attend those heroes of the Constitution’s crew.” With their commonplace modes of organization and expression together with their fervent declarations of witnessing, Campbell’s ballads exemplify the ways that the collective idioms and sway of song conventions turn individual experience to community expression and values. The conclusion to Campbell’s New Song articulates this dynamic of the individual and the group: “Now to conclude my boys, and finish with my song, / I was a boatswain’s mate, unto said ship I do belong, / I wrote these lines to let you know how Yankees they can fight.” We can imagine those broadside buyers of Coverly’s Boston proudly singing these lines.

A wealth of topics pertaining to American culture threads through the materials of the Isaiah Thomas collection: heroism, humor, religious belief, social rank, gender, and the bellicose “turn” of these Yankees with their righteous inclinations. Further study of the system of purveyors and creators of the songs offers an immediate field for further investigation into the information that this collection gives on song-makers and their wares. Notably rich materials appear here for investigating women and gender as factors in the production as well as the imagery of songs, especially given how hard it can be to find representations of women and of female voices. Certainly these popular materials evidence not only a strong presence of women as their audience and market, but, as such figures as Susannah Rowson and Anne Keith discussed above show, a number of female authors, composers, and performers. Changes in social context shape the robust depictions of women in the older, traditional ballads in contrast with the more delicate and domestically oriented heroines in the newer, lyric mode, especially those pieces linked to the theater, such as Rowson’s Sailor Boy. Of the older type, Coverly published examples of the longstanding female warrior of broadside balladry, the conventionalized heroine who dresses as a man and ventures to sea or to war in such broadsides as The Female Drummer and The Happy Ship Carpenter.[8]  Traditional patterns such as this one stand contextualized by the Thomas collection’s vivid range of popular songs in disparate idioms that were circulating at the same time.  

The study of songs and singing culture must begin with the individual song and its history among singers. Where does the text originate? Can we locate an author? Does the work exist in printed variants? In oral traditions? What about the music? Do we have a surviving tune—or more than one? Does the piece persist in documented singing traditions beyond its initial appearance in the printed broadside repertoire? What performance conditions and influences can we find for the song? If there are variants, what venues are traceable for the work’s spread and transformation as it has circulated over time and from one locale to the next? What can be known and inferred about how the song has functioned in and influenced local and national life? As Kate Van Winkle Keller and Arthur Schrader’s meticulous tracing of individual song histories shows, the materials here are fascinating in and of themselves. The Isaiah Thomas collection comes to us on this website with an astonishing array of information on the singing of early America. In our twenty-first century, we can reanimate these ballads of two hundred years ago in our own performance, study, and appreciation. In their sounding commentary and richly intersecting modes, the songs presented here bring to kaleidoscopic life the early nineteenth-century New England to which they first spoke.

[1] For an extended definition of the concept of “popular culture” see Thomas Green. The songs considered here are “popular” along the lines of this definition by Jack Santino, which, in brief, defines the term as “expressive cultural forms… widely disseminated (that is, popular) in a group as part of dynamic social intercourse” (2:649-50).

[2] For sample general definitions of the term “ballad” from the three disciplines, see Abrams 18-20, Randel 67, and Brown and Rosenberg 47-48. Confusingly for song scholarship, the term “ballad” is used in common parlance with regard to contemporary jazz and popular music to mean, very generally, any song in a slow tempo with a sentimental text. See definitions (2) and (3) in Randel 68. However, with regard to scholarship on popular and folk songs, the term “ballad” identifies a strophic narrative song, the meaning that I give it here. For extended definition and discussion, see Dugaw’s definition of “ballad” in New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry 114-18.

[3] These ballads are sometimes referred to as “Child ballads” after the nineteenth-century Harvard scholar Francis James Child who compiled the authoritative, annotated collection of them. See Atkinson for a recent study that sketches both the history and stylistic parameters of this type of ballad. Especially useful is the first chapter’s positioning of “domains of meaning” in terms of singers, scholars, collectors, and the origins and dissemination of different kinds of ballads in oral contexts and in the broadside press. For a short introduction to the type of ballad in Child’s collection, see Hodgart.

[4] For a useful introductory bibliography to scholarship on both types of ballads, see Richmond. For a survey of scholarship on the ballad from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries, see Dugaw, Anglo-American Ballad.

[5] For a study of the “Ballad Revival,” the eighteenth-century literary preoccupation with the collection and study of popular songs, see Friedman. The collection and scholarship on printed street balladry develops further in our own day as these early broadside collections are presently being made available online. The entire Pepys collection, for example, is being mounted on the Internet in multimedia format by the Early Modern Center of the University of California, Santa Barbara, in the English Broadside Ballad Archive (EBBA). Many archives, the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, for example, have put photographic images of their broadsides online. Among the most widely used electronic databases for the study of Anglo-American songs are Steve Roud’s Broadside Index and Folksong Index. Another online electronic database is that of Robert Waltz and David Engle, The Traditional Ballad Index: An Annotated Bibliography of the Folk Songs of the English-Speaking World; see also that site’s ballad bibliography.

[6] For Renwick’s extended examination of these modes and proposal of the “catalogue” as a category, see “The Anglo/American Catalogue Song,” 59-91.

[7] Macpherson’s Ossianic poems contributed significantly to the eighteenth-century literary interest in popular songs and to a degree prompted and certainly influenced Thomas Percy’s Reliques, as discussed by Nick Groom.

[8] For my study of the female warrior pattern in balladry, which includes discussion of a number of songs represented in the Thomas collection, see Dugaw, Warrior Women. For an audio CD of the ballads, see Dugaw, Dangerous Examples.