While some single songs published with music and featuring the nomenclature of ‘Britain’ or ‘British’ date from the turn of the 18th century, more songs brand themselves as ‘British’ after 1750. A song such as Ambrose Davis’s ‘Go Glorious Youth, belov’d of Britain, go. A Song on the Dukes going to Scotland’ published in London in 1745, or ‘Can time be spent Better. The British Sailor’s Loyal Toast’ sung by Mr Lowe in the mid-1750s, are clearly voicing views around historic and political moments: here the 1745 Jacobite rising and the onslaught of the Seven Year’s War. While often framing themselves in an English context, several popular songs of the moment celebrate Britain’s maritime prowess. By 1790, Mr Incledon (mentioned in relation to our song story about Dibdin’s ‘True Courage’) was singing all about ‘The Heroes of the British Fleet’ (a song by James Cook) at Vauxhall Gardens. Around the same time the successful London music publisher Longman and Broderip produced a song sheet championing the British Volunteers in light of the revolution in France and the threat of British invasion (see British Library digital collection). As Oskar Cox Jensen has shown, there were many such songs across the Napoleonic wars, helping to enthuse modern Britons to serve King and country.
As seen by the packaging of, and responses to, ‘Rule, Britannia!‘, British songs did not always encompass a truly united ‘Britain’. The complex blend of antiquarianism and invention in Welsh song collections (seen in the song story on Edward Jones) and the reframing of ancient Irish history, myth and legend in Moore’s Irish Melodies (in our song stories for ‘Silent O’Moyle’ and ‘‘Pretty Girl milking her cow’), undoubtedly present responses to uneasy contemporary British relations at this time. Burns’s ‘Scots wha hae’ (performed in our RNSN concert) looked back to the Wars of Independence and to the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, but was written decades after the 1707 Union with England, and in the context of revolution in America and France; and Moore’s Irish Melodies appear only years after the Union with Ireland in 1801. On the other hand, some of our song stories – John Mayne’s ‘English, Scots and Irishmen’, Dora Jordan’s ‘Bluebell of Scotland’ and Thomas Moore’s ‘The Girl I left behind me’ – reveal that even songs marketed as belonging to one nation were often mixing and matching tunes, texts and national characteristics. As seen in our ‘English’ songs too, a theme of trans-nationality is clearly emerging at this time, not just amongst the British Isles, but globally.
Above all, song from across the British Isles frequently focussed on love of place (see our song stories for Scotland’s ‘Afton Water’ or Wales’s ‘Morfa Rhuddlan’). The most notable of these songs is Henry Bishop’s ‘Home, Sweet Home’, which, though we’ve placed it under the ‘English’ banner, is ubiquitous. As our song story illustrates, Bishop was keen to set or arrange songs from all four British nations and beyond and, as house composer for London music publisher Goulding & D’Almaine from the 1820s, he did just that. Their British Minstrel published in 1830 and involving, amongst others, Bishop and the younger Welshman, John Parry, was the first of several such collections of British song with music that would remain highly popular throughout the Victorian era. In the years running up to 1850 music critic George Hogarth provided biographical and historical notes to Jeremiah How’s collection How’s Book of British Song, illustrated by several distinguished Artists published by Archibald Constable. This, at once, reflected the Victorian disposition for encyclopaedic notes while underpinning knowledge about British song culture for many subsequent generations.
Given the thesis of Linda Colley’s influential Britons, we might have expected to see more of a unity and a clearer sense of ‘Britain’ or ‘British’ song emerging. But, as our song stories, blogs and reading lists suggest, there is in fact a remarkable lack of ‘British’ songwriting during the period 1750-1850, in direct contrast to the active field of national song publication in the four nations at this time.
Featured image: The Glory of Old England; Briton’s Protection; print; music sheet/cover; Laurie & Whittle (Published by); 1803; London. Courtesy of The British Museum.