Battle of the Kegs, The
DESCRIPTION: The singer tells of the battle between the British fleet and a flotilla of American barrels. As the barrels float downstream, the British fear they contain bombs or commandos, and blast the kegs to smithereens -- then boast of their victory
AUTHOR: Francis Hopkinson (source: Eggleston; Dichter/Shapiro, p. xxi)
EARLIEST DATE: 1778 (Dichter/Shapiro, p. xxi)
KEYWORDS: technology war rebellion battle humorous
Jan 5, 1778 - "The Battle of the Kegs"
FOUND IN: US
REFERENCES (4 citations):
Scott-BoA, pp. 77-80, "The Battle of the Kegs" (1 text, 1 tune)
Cohen-AFS1, pp. 135-137, "The Battle of the Kegs (1 text plus a broadside print)
Lawrence, p. 77, "The Battle of the Kegs" (1 text, tune referenced); p. 131, "Battle of the Kegs" (1 tune, partial text, a copy of the tune in the 1813 American Patriotic Songster)
cf. "Yankee Doodle" (tune) and references there
cf. "Maggie Lauder" (tune)
The Freedom of Election ("New Jersey hail! -- thrice happy state!) (Lawrence, p. 131)
Battle of Plattsburgh and Victory on Lake Champlain ("Sir George Prevost with all his host") (Lawrence, pp. 218-219)
British Valor Displayed
NOTES: After the British took over Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War, the Colonials tried various expedients to harass their shipping. One of these was the use of what we would now call floating mines -- kegs filled with gunpowder and intended to explode among the British ships.
The most intense combat of this sort took place in the winter of 1778. When the British saw a large number of kegs floating downriver, they naturally did all they could to explode them in advance (and, in fact, they were highly successful). The residents of Philadelphia, however, derived great amusement from watching the British attack a bunch of barrels. Hence this song.
I know of no real evidence that the piece is traditional. But it became well-known. J. Franklin Jameson, Dictionary of United States History 1492-1895, Puritan Press, 1894, p. 54, mentions it (one of only a handful of songs it mentions), referring to it as "a celebrated humorous poem of the Revolutionary War, written by Francis Hopkinson."
Checking Granger's Index to Poetry, I find seven other Hopkinson pieces listed, although the only one I've ever seen is "Enraptured I Gaze." But this one was well-enough known that (Samuel Eliot Morison, The Oxford History of the American People, Oxford, 1965, p. 250) lists it as one of his typical songs of the Revolutionary period.
Jameson, p. 313, gives this biography of Hopkinson:
Hopkinson, Francis (1737-1791) was admitted to the bar in 1761. He was a New York Councilman from 1774 to 1776. He was a delegate to the Continental Congress from 1776 to 1777, serving on the committee to draft articles of confederation and advocating and signing the Declaration of Independence. He was appointed head of the Navy Department in 1775. He aided the cause of liberty by some witty satires and popular poems and songs. He was Judge of Admiralty for Pennsylvania from 1779 to 1789, and a U. S. District Judge from 1790 to 1791.
There seems to be dispute about the tune. The first source I saw said it was sung to "Yankee Doodle," which fits it well. Lawrence, on the other hand, claims it is sung to "Maggie Lauder." (The tune on p. 131 of Lawrence isn't either one -- and is almost unsingable, with a range of an octave and a fifth, so it can probably be ignored.) The text does not quite fit "Maggie Lauder" as I know the tune, but Lawrence has a different transcription. More noteworthy is the fact that the text in Lawrence is printed in short stanzas of 4-3-4-3+ feet; "Maggie Lauder" uses eight-line stanzas. My guess would be that the piece was published as a poem, and various people used different tunes, with "Yankee Doodle" being the most popular both because it's a good fit and because it was well known. - RBW
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