FIDDLE, DANCE AND SING WITH GEORGE BUSH
by Kate Van Winkle Keller
[click the following links to find the three Bush books: Songs from the American Revolution, Fiddle Tunes from the American Revolution, and Social Dances from the American Revolution in our store]
In May of 1789, shortly after he met with his old Commander-in-Chief George Washington, George Bush wrote him a letter requesting the position of Customs Collector for the port of Wilmington, Delaware. He received that appointment and was later made Inspector of Survey for the ports of Wilmington, New Castle and Port Penn. Perhaps it was the new workload that ended his collecting of song lyrics, dances, and tunes for his fiddle in the notebook he had begun ten years earlier.
Born in Wilmington in about 1753, Bush had a predilection for order and the keeping of financial records, and a deep love of music. In 1776, at the expiration of his four-year apprenticeship to a merchant in Philadelphia, he joined the army as a Lieutenant. He saw action at Staten Island, Brunswick, Brandywine, Paoli, Germantown and in encounters with the Indians under Hartley and Sullivan. He was wounded at Brandywine and in the winter of 1781-82 wrote to a friend that he regretted that his health had prevented him from going to Virginia to participate in the action at Yorktown which culminated in the surrender of Cornwallis. After Germantown, most of his time seems to have been spent on recruiting missions and as paymaster, handling large sums of money for the army.
He evidently carried a fiddle with him as he traveled, and in 1779 began a collection of music in a pocket notebook made of paper from a Pennsylvania mill. After allowing seven pages for an index in which he distinguished his tunes as "songs," "minuets & airs," or "marches," he prepared a title page which suggested that he had a three-volume book to copy from. Although his first song lyric does appear in a similarly titled book, Vocal Music, or the Songster's Companion (London: J. Bew, ), he soon abandoned his tidy scheme and added songs, tunes, and dance figures as he was able to acquire them.
In all he transcribed thirty-two songs, most without music, ten minuets, six marches, twenty-four other airs, sixteen country dances, and one title, "Lady Bukleys Whim," which is ruled for music but has no entry. This last was one of the most frequently copied and printed country dances in American sources, one whose music is rarely found. Its spelling ranged from "Barkeley" or "Berkley" to "Buckley." Most of the songs, tunes, and dances are of British origin, and most were copied from fairly accurate sources. Several were transcribed by ear but there is no evidence that Bush composed any of the music or songs.
When the book was bound, leaves containing army business notes were wrapped around the music section, and a single leaf torn from Caledonian Country Dances (London: I. Walsh, ) was added. Later a friend sent Bush the lyrics of "O! Say Bonny Lass can you lie in a Barrack" which he folded carefully and attached with sealing wax.
The whole is a treasure trove of information about Bush, his activities, the people with whom he had business, and his leisure time activities. There are names of musicians, including that of Samuel Dewees ["Dauwise"], a fifer who in 1844 published an account of his wartime service, and of officers, recruits, and friends. There are lists of supplies, monies paid and received, currency values and exchange rates, and even a list of the laundry Bush sent to his washwoman. A preliminary study of the music has been very interesting and a full study of all the information together promises to shed considerable light on the private and public life of a junior officer in Washington's army.
His selection of songs and tunes is somewhat different from most known manuscripts of his time. Much of the music he collected is of fairly high quality; many of the songs and minuets are through-composed, the airs often of non-standard phrase lengths. He had no need for camp duty music and apparently no taste for barroom hornpipes or reels. Judging from the songs he collected, he may have been a Freemason and he certainly enjoyed the company of the ladies. A batchelor until 1793, he collected a number of sentimental songs about love and one rather obscene one too. Many pieces were of fairly recent popularity from the London stage and pleasure gardens, demonstrating the speed with which new fashions traveled across the ocean.
Bush was thoughtful about being a soldier and collected a number of songs about the hardships as well as the glories of the service, including one associated with the British General Wolfe and two others linked to Major John André, the British officer who collaborated with Benedict Arnold in his treason. Bush changed words in some songs to reflect American rather than British topics and recorded one lyric written "by an American officer [to a march by Handel] and sung at the celebration of the Birth of the Dauphin [of France] at West Point."
His interest in music continued when he returned to Wilmington after the war. Three songs from William Shield's ballad opera The Poor Soldier struck his fancy, and his last entry was the delightful stage piece "Poor Jack, or the Sweet Little Cherub" written by Charles Dibdin in 1789.
Although Bush's collection seems to have been entirely for his personal amusement, to please his friends, other officers, or to share with the people with whom he lodged or spent time, there are several aspects to its contents which will reward more detailed study. The first and most significant is that a cluster of tunes near the beginning appears to have been copied from the now-lost fife tutor printed in Philadelphia in 1776 by Hall and Sellers [Evans 14686], including the tune of "Yankee Doodle." The only extant edition of this tutor was printed by George Willig in about 1805 with an added leaf [pp. 21-22] of later tunes. Bush's manuscript appears to confirm current thinking that the rest of the pages in the Willig edition were printed from plates of the 1776 edition. If this is the case, it means that, at last, we can identify an American printing of the tune of "Yankee Doodle" that dates before 1794. Its presence in the fife tutor would help to explain the stability it enjoyed as it was copied into manuscripts throughout the colonies over the last quarter of the century.
The Hall and Sellers tutor was evidently a copy of The Compleat Tutor for the Fife (London: Thos. Bennett, [c. 1770]), with the addition of four pages of tunes particularly favored in America, the tunes that Bush copied. Among these were "White Joke," "Gaurdian [sic] Angels," "Corellis Gavot," "Lovely Nancy," "The Sette in Queen Mab," and "Haymakers." For two others from this source, "Lady's Breast Knot" and "Come Haste to the Wedding," Bush added country dance figures.
The inclusion of these dance figures with their music is noteworthy. While several wartime tune collections have survived, the only other source of dances and music is in a manuscript now at Yale University, made between 1777 and 1782 by Aaron Thompson, fife-major in the 3rd New Jersey Regiment. Thompson added five dances and their music at the end of his collection. Three of these, "The Dutchess of Brunswick," "Miss Moore's Rant," and "Sweet Richard," are also in Bush's collection with similar music and figures. It is possible that both men collected dances that may have been in use during the winter encampments of 1778-1780 near Morristown, New Jersey. Another of Bush's country dances was named for Pluckemin, location of Gen. Henry Knox's artillery camp southwest of Morristown.
One of the minuets he copied Bush called the "Congress Minuet." This tune appears in many contemporary American and British sources as "King George III's Minuet." He and his friends may have enjoyed a good laugh over the changed title, considering the varying degrees of support which Congress gave the army.
Another significant piece in Bush's book is the music and the lyrics of a sentimental topical song modelled on a song later called "The Grey Cock" (Child ballad number 248). Bush's song began "Saw You my hero," and depicted Martha Washington searching the battlefield for her "hero, George." It was based on a "favourite Scotch Song" which began "Saw you my father" that appeared in the late 1760s in British publications. The tune is in two phrases, each of seven bars. It was printed with its lyrics on engraved song sheets, in violin tutors as a tune alone, and with figures for a country dance in the 1770s, the latter an assymetrical fit of dance and tune which appeared only once and suggests that its currency as a song was paramount. It is difficult to dance with its seven-bar phrase lengths.
The "Lady Washington" lyric apparently went into American folk tradition. Its earliest known printing was without music in the early nineteenth century on a broadside in Isaiah Thomas's collection now at the American Antiquarian Society and it may have been the model for the folk hymn, "Saw you my Saviour."
Most of the song lyrics that Bush copied were widely known; many were to music by composers like Thomas Arne, James Oswald, Handel and others; a few were old classics like "Katharine Ogie" and "The Lass of Paties Mill." He did not include music for most of his lyrics, but because of their wide distribution both with and without music, all but three have been identified. Of the latter, "The Royal Arch," based on a masonic theme, is quite vulgar; unusual in a collection like this. Irving Lowens noticed and remarked on the curious lack of bawdy and vulgar songs in American songsters and his observation has held true for most manuscript collections as well. For Bush, who was of an intellectual type, this song may simply have been a jest.
His collection was that of an officer and a gentleman. It is one of the few surviving manuscripts originating outside of New England. There has been speculation that southern musicians did not use the same literature that New Englanders enjoyed, but his collection suggests differently. In fact, a parallel can be found in a manuscript of tunes for keyboard and guitar now at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Begun in 1782 in Boston by Elizabeth Saunders Van Rensselaer, it contains many of the same songs and tunes, including a number of the more unusual ones in Bush's book. The determining factor for selection of repertory may have been economic and practical rather than regional. Bush was an upperclass man of means who did not use music as a livelihood. He had access to new publications, leisure to collect items he liked, and his choice was those of current fashion. He apparently moved in a circle of friends of similar tastes.
Bush dined with the officers of his and other regiments and probably attended their parties. He hosted events as well. On leaf 99v of his book he recorded the costs of food and drink for a dinner he was involved in. He also hired fiddlers to provide music. Judging from his collection, he may have enjoyed private evenings playing minuets for his friends to dance and fashionable Scots songs which they could sing together. He probably did not play for hire. In his manuscript collection Bush recorded a lively and personal glimpse into the leisure times of the officers of George Washington's army during and immediately after the Revolutionary War.
George Bush died without living issue in 1797, thus no direct line can be traced from him to present day Bush families. His manuscript remained in the family until 1990, when it was donated to the Historical Society of Delware.
Author's note: This article first appeared in The Sonneck Society for American Music Bulletin 18/2 (Summer, 1992), 47-49. Since publishing the article and the editions of Bush's music, I have located the orderly book of another officer serving on the Sullivan campaign, dated "Headquarters, Wyoming, June 25, 1779." It was the record book for Christian Myers Company, and in the middle contains a number of song lyrics, several of them similar to those in Bush's book. Of particular note is the Mason's lyric that Bush called "The Royal Arch."
My thanks to Charles Cyril Hendrickson, Susan Cifaldi, and Arthur Schrader for help in interpreting George Bush's manuscript. We are grateful to The Historical Society of Delaware and particularly to Dr. Constance J. Cooper, manuscript librarian, for support of this project.
In light of current events, it probably should be noted that neither of the early American dances "Democratic Rage" or "Clinton's Retreat" appear in George Bush's manuscript, but his collection does include "Wars Alarms" and "Sucessfull Campaign."