Sunday, October 2, 2011

Introducing The Musick of Prescott's Battalion Blog

William Prescott at Bunker Hill
On the night of June 16, 1775, Colonel William Prescott of Pepperell, Mass., led a rag-tag collection of 1200 citizen soldiers to a low hill in Charlestown, a neck of land overlooking Boston Harbor. At his direction, this nascent army - Prescott’s Battalion - began digging, and within 12 hours had erected a string of earthworks on what was later identified as Breed’s Hill, the elevation south of Bunker Hill, closer to the harbor and strategically a better location than Bunker Hill.

The next morning, June 17, the series of attacks by the British regulars on the crude fortifications and the Americans’ repulse became the now-famous Battle of Bunker’s Hill. To Col. William Prescott is attributed the cry, “Don’t fire until you see the white of their eyes,” a caution to conserve limited ammunition by making every shot count.

Prescott’s Massachusetts Regiment was formed of militia companies from around Pepperell which had responded in April 1775 to the Lexington Alarm and “the shot heard ‘round the world.” During the Siege of Boston,  the regiment quartered with the rest of the raw, young army for nearly a year in Cambridge and Roxbury Camps, on the outskirts of the British-occupied city. After the British evacuated Boston in March 1776, many soldiers re-enlisted, serving throughout the American Revolution in various companies and regiments.

Ten companies, each of a hundred men, formed a regiment. Ideally, each company had one fifer and one snare drummer; this music was massed into a music company for regimental or battalion activities, including camp duties, relay of commands, and entertainment. The Musick of Prescott’s Battalion represents that massed regimental music.

At Longfellow's Wayside Inn, Sudbury, MA
Colonial New England Martial Musick, Inc., incorporated in 2006 and functions publicly as The Musick of Prescott’s Battalion. Our mission is to perform music that was likely heard among the ranks of the raucous, undisciplined volunteers in Cambridge Camp and Roxbury Camp during the formative days of the American Revolution.

Our uniforms are anything but. Early-war military dress illustrates different interpretations of a uniform, including French & Indian War leftovers, captured British uniforms, and everyday civilian wear. You’ll see us in a mélange of civilian clothing and accoutrements of the era, from the tatters of the street urchin to the tailored coat of the merchant, from the neatly mended hand-me-downs of the indentured servant to the short utility jacket of the common laborer. Patterns and fabrics have been researched, and authenticity is emphasized.

Equal attention – and more – is paid to our music. We select our tunes from a wide variety of sources dating from 1640 to 1820, with the focus on pre-1800 music. Sources from both sides of the Atlantic include 17th and 18th Century composers and public broadsides, music collections and tutors published throughout the 18th Century, and unpublished manuscripts. Before the war generated new military tunes, the common man’s favorites included dance tunes, ballads sung in the pubs and ordinaries, instructors for flute, violin, guitar, and harpsichord, and homespun music performed at community gatherings.

These tunes, from the famous to the obscure, hale primarily from the British Isles, Ireland, and the North American colonies, with a sprinkling from the French and Germans. Much of this music was composed for dancing, a highly popular form of entertainment in the 17th and 18th Century Western world. Some comes from the operas of those days, another cultural art form favored by the populace both above and below the salt.

Many tunes were published repeatedly over the course of 150 years: this was the music of the common man. Common and sometimes vulgar. Today, the Musick of Prescott’s Battalion sub-specializes in tunes with naughty names, reflecting our common man’s interest in women and drink, often in the same tune. A lot of awful pretty tunes out there have some pretty awful names. But since we don’t sing the lyrics, we suffer less risk of offending tender ears.

Besides being a place to post activity reports for The Musick of Prescott’s Battalion, this blog will highlight these tunes and their history, naughty or not. Learn the lyrics for “Would You Have A Young Virgin.” Discover the antiquity and continued popularity of “Lilliburlero” which has been used in the 21st Century as background music for a baby-formula commercial. Come along with us and have fun with this music!

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