How Music Helped Win the American Revolution

Jul 3, 2017

As we remember our War of Independence from Great Britain, you might be surprised to know that Americans deployed a surprising secret weapon—music. WRTI's Debra Lew Harder has more.

Radio Script:

[MUSIC: “Yankee Doodle,” performed by Nathan Hale Ancient Fifes and Drums]

Debra Lew Harder: Victory seemed sure for the best-trained army in the world. When British redcoats marched against American colonists in 1775,  "Yankee Doodle..."

Myron Gray: Starts out as a song British soldiers used to ridicule the Americans.

DLH: Musicology professor Myron Gray. But as fortunes improved for the poorly-equipped American army during the early phases of the Revolution, they made up their own irreverent text to the British tune.

MG: And it becomes an emblem of the American Revolution.

[MUSIC: “Yankee Doodle,” vocal and banjo, performed by Pete Seeger]

DLH: The upstart Americans appropriated other British tunes as well, like "Rule Brittania," resolving, in new words, to "perish or be free."

MG:  At that point, "Rule Brittania," which was a British imperialist naval anthem, has been turned on its head.

[Music: “Rule Brittania,” the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, conducting]

This act of parodying British music was a musical analog to what was going on militarily. It was a way of overturning, overthrowing the meaning of these songs and of rising up and claiming them for yourself.

Music, along with other symbols and rituals, were just as important as any kind of military strategy or victory that would ultimately bring about Revolution.

[Music: “George Washington's March,” The Liberty Tree Wind Players]

DLH: The audacity and courage of the American people, reflected in music, forced the founding of freedom that we celebrate today.