With over 260-million views on YouTube, Donald Glover’s (aka Childish Gambino) “This is America” actually repeats history. By that I mean to state that Glover is using song and wit to tell a story.[1]  As a cultural historian, I appreciated Glover’s approach to satirize deep-seeded problems in American society. But the expression of topics in musical form is nothing new.

In fact, one way to visit the past is through songs. In mid-eighteenth-century Britain that meant ballads. And according to M. John Cardwell in his book Arts and Arms, it was ballads – not the newspaper and not the pamphlets – that were the dominant genre in use when it came to discussing politics within greater Britain. Most subjects and citizens accepted this and attempted to write the news of the day to some famous tune using wit and rhyme.[2]

And because eighteenth-century London was a major trading port, ballads were sung where people hung out: taverns, inns, alehouses to be sure; but also churchyards, coffeehouses, market centers, the guild halls, and places where food, drink and lodging were in abundance.[3]

In chapter one of my soon to be published book, The Execution of Admiral John Byng as a Microhistory of Eighteenth-century Britain, ballads and Admiral Byng come together. One particular ballad caught my eye recently. Entitled “The Wonder of Surry! or, Who Perswaded A—–l B—g to run away?”, the focus is on the army.

A little backstory, Byng was sent to Minorca with a few hundred army personnel that were supposed to be on the island. London politicos hoped to reinforce Minorca’s fortification: Fort St. Philip. But by the time Byng’s fleet arrived at Gibraltar, the French had invaded the island landing 15,000 men and supplies. There was a naval battle on May 20th, 1756, where Byng’s ships fought with the French, but it was inconclusive. On the 24th, Byng called for a War Council to determine what next. With 42 dead, and numerous wounded, three damaged ships, one near to the point of sinking, a return to Gibraltar was agreed upon by all. This unanimous vote by the council included four army officers:

  • Thomas Howard, 2nd Earl Effingham
  • Colonel Edward Cornwallis, sixth son of the 4th Baron Cornwallis
  • General James Stuart
  • Lord Robert Bertie, the fifth son of the 1st Duke of Ancaster

Effingham, Cornwallis, and Stuart were, in fact, supposed to already be at the fort but were on an extended leave. Bertie’s regiment of fusiliers was sent by the Admiralty as proxy sailors: Byng’s fleet was short over 700 men. All four would testify at Byng’s trial, Bertie in favour of Byng; Effingham, Cornwallis and Stuart against.

Wonders of Surry

Masthead to the 1756 broadsheet ballad, “The Wonder of Surry!” Note the upside-down print block at the top with the word “Parnassus” below the mountain.

OK, so now the song, “The Wonder of Surry”. First thing you ought to know is that it was a broadsheet ballad. That meant the ballad was printed on a single sheet of paper – big, but just a single sheet, print on one side, blank on the other.[4] This meant that the ballad could be plastered on a wall, or sold for cheap, probably a penny. The low costs also signified the target audience: the lower ranks of society. This ballad was meant for subjects of the crown, not its citizens. Second, the printed or etched block at the top is upside down. That was likely purposeful. One word appears, “Parnassus”, one of the largest mountains in all of Greece. In ancient mythology, Parnassus covers the “flood” story but is also the originating home of most of the Greek muses. The upside-down nature of the block may signify that everything known and ancient has just been turned asunder.

Moll Cutpurse

Mary Frith was famed in song and theatre, and sometimes called “Moll Cutpurse” for her thievery.

Third, the ballad is to be sung to the tune of “Mol Row” probably short for Mary (or Molly, Mol) the Roaring Girl, Mol Row (get it?). Mol Row, though, is based on a once living person, Mary Frith (1584-1659). Frith was a crossdresser, a woman who always dressed like a man, swore like a man, and may have run a prostitution ring. So again, reinforced, things are topsy-turvy.

Though Byng appears in the first four stanzas, it isn’t exactly clear whether the ballad is out to indict him or give relief. It’s in the fifth stanza where the ballad aims:

A Council of War strait he call’d,
And These came to A—B—

Cornwallis and Bertie and Stewart,
With Effingham Howard  I sing,
And when in Council they met,
To Them, thus said A—B—

Noble Lords and Commanders so Gay
shall we give ‘em another Drubbing,
Or else shall we morris away?
“Why let us March off Mr. Byng.

Shall I send you to BLAKENEY on shore.
He’ll shew you a *Caunonading,
“We like your safe method much more
“So We’ll stay with You A—B—”

In studying the print I can make some assumptions – the target audience must be sailors. This ballad may serve as a classic case of navy vs. army. The anonymity, the misspellings, and its broadsheet format indicate the audience, and that Admiral Byng, though not given a pass, does occasionally get a reprieve, as in stanza two:

A Fleet was Equip’d with Commanders
Too weak, – and Too late in the Spring
Some as good as any in Flanders
Was sent too with A—l  B—g

Not quite Donald Glover material, but nonetheless indicative of a long historical tradition of using music and rhyme to make comments on issues of the day.

[1] As of June 10, 2018.

[2] M. John Cardwell, Arts and Arms: Literature, Politics and Patriotism During the Seven Years War, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004), 4.

[3] James Van Horn Melton, The Rise of the Public Sphere in Enlightenment Europe (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001), 227.

[4] Leslie Shepard, The Broadside Ballad: A Study in Origins and Meaning (London: Herbert Jenkins Limited, 1962), 23.