The University Record, November 12, 2001

Sheet music provides reminder of time spent whistling Dixie

By Lesley Harding

It’s music to many musicians’ ears that thousands of sheets of patriotic songs are housed at the Clements Library, the School of Music Library and University Library. Many of these songs were composed in response to civil unrest and political situations. (Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services)
In classrooms and memorial services, at ballgames and on the radio and TV, it seems many Americans are finding solace after the Sept. 11 attacks in music. But not just any music—songs that stir the sole and rekindle a nationalistic spirit, lyrics that remind us that America is the “home of the brave,” and a “sweet land of liberty”—songs that make us proud to wave the red, white and blue.

“Music has always been associated with getting people emotionally involved in things,” says John Dann, director of the Clements Library. And now, as in other times of national crisis, people are coming together through patriotic music. “The function of this type of music,” says Richard Crawford, professor of music, “is to create a frame that invites people to participate collectively in some kind of statement about their nation, about their state and about a political entity they believe in. People singing patriotic songs are acting as custodians of the national spirit.”

That spirit wasn’t just born with the United States in 1776; it goes back to the early days of the Romans and Greeks. Much of their patriotic music was a result of their militaries. Dann says armies had to have some means of audible communication during times of noisy battle and horns and drums were the great communicators.

Like these early days, America’s patriotic music is deeply rooted in its military might. Soldiers wake up to Reveille and go to bed with Taps. “From Bunker Hill to Gettysburg, drums and other instruments were used to tell soldiers what to do,” says Dann. “It makes sense that they might play these instruments in off-duty times to produce music of a more tuneful sort. Military service and music have gone hand-in-hand forever.”

Some of the earliest documented American patriotic songs sprung out of the political climate just before the American Revolution. As Britain began to impose its rule through tariffs and other duties, Crawford says, “Americans were clever and wrote fresh lyrics to some British songs. These new words were critical and aimed back at Britain.”

Britain responded by writing songs solely meant to poke fun at troops in the soon-to-be American colonies. But instead of taking offense, American soldiers liked songs like Yankee Doodle so much that they often sang it in battle. Some accounts say military bands played Yankee Doodle when the British surrendered at Yorktown, Va., in 1781.

Like many of our patriotic songs, the Star-Spangled Banner started out as poem. During the war of 1812, Francis Scott Key penned the great work after the British failed to capture Baltimore. An intense day of battle led to an eerie night. American soldiers didn’t know if the British were waiting for daybreak to resume shelling or if they had given up. By “dawn’s early light,” Key indeed could see the flag was still there and the British were no longer attacking.

A few months after Key wrote the poem, it was put to an existing song written by John Stafford Smith. To Anacreon in Heaven became the music for The Star-Spangled Banner. A publisher was so quick to print the sheet music for what would become our national anthem, that he didn’t check his spelling. There are fewer than ten copies of sheet music with the word “patriotic” spelled “pariotic.” One of those original copies exists in the Clements Library.

Throughout the 18th century, military and other political actions continued to be a major source for patriotic songs. This music often was heard coming from military campsites. Weary soldiers would mark the end of the day’s fighting by singing around the fire. This tradition goes back to religious meetings or open-air rallies. Dann says singing is a way of raising the emotional level of an audience.

Some of the most documented uses of patriotic singing were during the Civil War. The Battle Hymn of the Republic was often heard around campfires. Crawford says at these nighttime sing-a-longs, confederate and union soldiers would even trade versus across enemy camps.

The tradition of military music as patriotic song continued over the decades. During World Wars I and II, composer Irving Berlin is credited with many great songs, including the 1939 God Bless America. This patriotic song threatened to replace the national anthem because of its popularity.

While civil unrest seems to be the great music motivator, Dann says people also sang about other political situations. Temperance, anti-slavery, the women’s movement; the lyrical message is a way of offering hope and encouragement that better days are ahead.

“Music puts the situation into time,” says Crawford. All too true when Woodie Guthrie wrote This Land is Your Land. Composed in the late 1930s when bread lines were longest, Crawford says Guthrie wrote this song in response to Berlin’s God Bless America. Guthrie shared the sentiment of many Americans who were not so sure God blessed America for them.

Whether it is remembered as one of the great patriotic songs or not, This Land is Your Land will join the company of thousands of other nationalistic songs, lyrics and poems that someone, somewhere felt compelled to write.

A tremendous part of American history, the sheet music for many of these songs are housed in some of nation’s most important libraries. The School of Music Library in conjunction with the University Library has nearly a half million pieces of sheet music, while the Clements Library has its own collection of 20,000 or more sheets.