Naval Warfare in the American Revolution - Lesson Plan #10

TOPIC: Period Music

OBJECTIVES: Students will be able to:

1. Identify styles of music popular during the Revolution

2. Recognize songs identified with the Royal Navy

3. Explain how music was used on board ship


NOTE TO TEACHERS: The music for many of these songs cannot be posted to the website at this time. While we attempt to find a way to accommodate your needs, please feel free to contact Meryl Rutz for reference material useful in this lesson.

I. Music of the Period

A. Many styles of music were popular during the Revolutionary War period.

1. Music of the Baroque era.

2. Music for the masses, or popular music as we would call it today.

3. Tavern music, work songs, &c.

B. Certain songs had ceremonial function.

1. (See Handout 10a showing the original and the current lyrics)

a. Played when the king was present.

b. This song was never the official national anthem of Great Britain, though it is often sung with that significance (information as of 1947).

c. Become popular in 1745, when it was used to rally the English to the cause of defeating the second Scottish Jacobite Rebellion.

d. The words were actually changed in 1946, to reflect the newer ideal of world brotherhood.

e. Do you recognize the music to this song? (Known in the United States as My Country ‘Tis of Thee).


a. Composed in 1740 by Thomas Arne, this was first performed at the home of Frederick, Duke of Wales.

b. It also became popular during the Jacobite Uprising.

C. More popular types of music

1. There is too much known about popular music of the period to really go into a lot of depth – we will focus on music popular with the Royal Navy men.

2. Like today, this type of music was played at dinner parties, published in collections of popular song, and generally well-known to a large sector of the population.

3. could be considered to fall into this classification of music.

a. The unofficial anthem of the Royal Navy.

b. It was also wildly popular among the men, who regarded its words with great pride and sang it frequently as a motivational song.

c. Often played on fife or fiddle or beat on the drum during battle to inspire the men.

d. Written in 1759 by David Garrick and Dr. William Boyce, Master of the King’s Orchestra to commemorate the Royal Navy’s triple victories of that year at Quebec, Lagos and Quiberon Bay.

4. (the Mermaid), like Heart of Oak, was a popular song among sailors.

a. Included in a published collection of music in 1686, it was still popular among sailors during the Napoleonic Wars.

b. Like the others mentioned so far, this song was also considered a patriotic song.

D. Folk music

1. Unquestionably, the most common form of music and most well known music would be classified as folk music today.

2. Usually in the form of ballads, these songs often commemorate major events, or poke fun at the enemy with satire.

3. The most well known of this genre is , still sung by schoolchildren today (See Handout 10b).

a. Originally a British song making fun of American pretensions at sophistication.

b. The Americans adopted it as their ‘theme’ song during the Revolution and it was even played at the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781 in response to the British playing a popular song called .

4. Folk music is generally passed from person to person orally or by ear.

a. Consequently, little folk music was actually written down but comes to us 

today from the laborious passing of the songs from musician to musician though contact.

b. As another consequence of this manner of transmission, several variations exist for each traditional tune.

c. Often, these variations will be barely recognizable as having originated in the same tune.

e. Though a great deal of folk music has been transcribed, it is often difficult to track down sheet music for a particular variation or even certain tunes.

E. Work music

1. The music most well known among sailors would be folk music, of which work songs are a subcategory.

a. The tune , for example, was played when the men’s ration of grog, watered down rum, was distributed.

b. One or more musicians on board the ship would hold impromptu concerts in the evenings or during other down time for the enjoyment of the sailors.

2. On board merchant ships, work songs (shanties) set the pace of the task at hand.

a. The men would sing the song or the refrain together and move in unison on a particular beat.

b. For example, if hauling a line, the men might make a hard pull of the line on every downbeat.

3. War ships did not use work songs per se, because men worked in silence.

a. The men had to be silent so that they could hear orders given by their superiors during times of crisis.

b. The Royal Navy, however, recognized the value of working to a beat or even the morale building effect of music.

c. Consequently, they often had a fiddler, fifer, or drummer playing well-known and well-liked tunes when the men were working.

NOTE TO TEACHERS: Clips from the movie, The Bounty, starring Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins, can be used to illustrate music aboard warships. H.M.S. Bounty was a real ship of the Royal Navy that was sent on a special mission to the South Seas in 1785. The movie does a good job of portraying the clothing and conditions of life aboard ship during this period. Featured in the story is a fiddler, hired specifically for the job by Captain William Bligh to maintain the morale of the men during long, tedious months at sea.

4. Some of these work songs have come down to us today.

a. is still fairly well-known today.

i. This piece is known as a ‘run-away’ song.

ii. The men would take hold of a rope and run down the deck to the beat of the music, pulling the rope behind them.

b. is also still very popular today.

i. This song is a ‘halyard shanty.’

ii. It would be sung while men were hauling on ropes to raise parts of the rigging


i. Less well known than its kin shown above, this is a ‘capstan shanty.’

ii. The capstan was a sort of barrel on an axle used to raise the anchor.

iii. To raise it, the cable was wrapped around the capstan and then the men turned the capstan, pulling in the cable and the heavy anchor attached to it.

iv. This tune is believed to have originally been sung ashore.

e. Boston Come-All-Ye (or The Fishes)

i. This is an example of a forecastle (crew's quarters) song.

ii. It may have originated as a Scottish fishing song.

NOTE TO TEACHERS: Additional sea songs of the period are available on a cassette tape, Seaport 76: Colonial and Revolutionary Sea Songs (Folkways Cassette Series: 05275) available from the Smithsonian Institution by calling (202) 287-3262 or by writing to:


Center for Folklife Programs & Cultural Studies

955 L’Enfant Plaza 2600

Smithsonian Institution

Washington, D.C. 20560


Sheet music and lyrics for songs identified with the period of the Revolution (see NOTE TO TEACHERS at the top of this lesson plan under Procedure and the bibliography below), Handouts 10a and 10b, the movie The Bounty, and the tape Seaport 76: Colonial and Revolutionary Sea Songs.

All of the songs in this lesson plan are available from the following books:

Grossman, Anne Chotzinoff and Lisa Grossman Thomas. Lobscouse & Spotted Dog.

New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997.

Boni, Margaret Bradford, ed. Fireside Book of Folk Songs. New York: Simon and

Schuster, 1947.


Student assessment will take place through participation in class activities and unit testing.

Repair to the Lesson Plan Page