In this lively and engaging study, Oskar Cox Jensen surveys and analyses a neglected corpus of approximately 400 songs that circulated in England before, during and after the Napoleonic Wars. These songs, according to the author, have been seriously neglected by scholars, particularly but not only in their musical dimensions. This is a book about the experience of singing and, fittingly, it is accompanied by sixty-two recordings, easily accessible online. These were made, with heroic stamina, by the author’s sister and fellow historian, Freyja Cox Jensen, during a three-day period in September 2015. All in all, this is an exciting resource and it deserves to be widely read and heard. The author’s understanding of song is sophisticated and well informed. He avoids any simple association of ‘popular song’ with the lower orders in society, describing it instead as ‘a heterodox amalgam of Elizabethan balladry and the latest light-operatic hits, of elite patriotic effusions and obscene gutter cant, of provincial beggars’ improvisations and Romantic poetry’. Songs, he argues, should not be treated by scholars as merely illustrative of other trends, nor as static and exclusively textual. Instead, songs were ‘active objects’ that both constructed and contested socio-political identities and opinions. Song was thus ‘a cultural space in which politics of all kinds was done’. Cox Jensen also introduces the concept of ‘fitness’, a term that denotes the capacity of an individual song to exert a significant influence in its own age by combining elements such as a strong tune, a workable fit between melody and lyrics, and an awareness of existing audience tastes and sensibilities. The concept is designed partly to avoid the imposition of modern aesthetic standards, though at times there is more than a suspicion that these continue to play a role. Nevertheless, the attempt to focus in this analysis of songs on ‘how well they functioned’ on the streets and in the public houses of early nineteenth-century England is commendable. This book also reveals an acute awareness that melody, both by mood and by association, played a significant role in the generation of meaning. Tunes that were re-used on more than one song came to acquire ‘competing identities’ as they became attached to contrasting texts. A nice example was the re-deployment of the famous tune ‘God save the King’ for a radical song entitled ‘Bob Shave the King’ (‘Bob’ in this instance was Robespierre). This interesting effect can be experienced by listening to the recording of ‘The Patriots Hymn’ by Samuel Bamford, another radical text that uses the tune of what is now the national anthem, replacing the words ‘God save the king’ with the aggressively contrasting phrase ‘Let man be free’. Cox Jensen draws a persuasive conclusion from such examples: ‘A tune, in short, was never purely melodic.’ The author also notes on several occasions that one of the components of a song’s ‘fitness’ was its capacity to assimilate itself to existing and often deeply rooted song traditions. Compositions that failed this test were much less likely than others to enjoy meaningful and influential lives. Another of the recordings, ‘Napoleon Buonaparte’s Exile to St Helena’, was sung to a well-known tune from the eighteenth century, thus connecting Napoleon’s departure from France with the sad parting of ‘Black-Ey’d Susan’ and her sweetheart in the original song. Other songs written in the years after the Battle of Waterloo used this famous military encounter as a backdrop for traditional tales of parting lovers, thus building a significant measure of familiarity into publications about recent events. Clearly, this book has much to offer scholars and students with a primary interest in song, but it also makes a significant contribution to debates about political opinions and identities during the early nineteenth century. In particular, the author argues with force that ‘the figure of Napoleon fared better in a truly popular context than that of Britannia’. Throughout the period, a battle was played out in song between loyalists who attacked Bonaparte and others who expressed considerable sympathy for him. The sympathetic voices tended to find themselves silenced during periods of intense warfare, but they never went away, and in the years after 1815 they enjoyed particular prominence. Moreover, the songs that sided with Napoleon were much more likely to lodge lastingly in the English imagination than those that scorned him. Cox Jensen calls this ‘a staggering verdict on the part of British audiences and printers, not just on the politics of loyalist propaganda, but on its lasting literary and musical merit’. It follows from this that Cox Jensen is intent upon adding weight to criticism of the view that this period was crucial in the formation of a united British identity. Other scholars have neglected these songs at their peril, and the author finds in his chosen sources plentiful evidence of sceptical responses to the threat of French invasion, and hostility to press gangs, taxation and the loss of life in warfare. He also emphasises evidence that personal and local identities were often at least as strong as any sense of Britishness, and the last chapter—a case-study of Newcastle—provides some intriguing contrasts with the situation in London. ‘The Napoleonic Wars’, we are told, ‘did not forge a homogenous, quiescent British identity, but left a divided and often disaffected populace’. To such people, Napoleon could come to resemble ‘one of their own: a hero and an everyman’. A few criticisms also seem appropriate. The musical recordings are excellent, and Freyja Cox Jensen sings with great poise and clarity, but the book itself makes hardly any direct reference to this accompanying resource, and readers are not even told which of the songs analysed in the text can also be found on the website. It would also have been useful to give readers a stronger sense of the physical form of the published songs, including the woodcut pictures that sometimes accompanied the texts (no images of the printed items are included in the book). And the use of the term ‘reading’ to describe interactions between consumers and the songs also raises some interesting questions about cognitive processes and the senses. This highly stimulating book teaches us much about singing, but we do not ‘read’ with our ears. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 10, 2018
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