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Ask Rufus: Our musical roots go 'Over the Hills and Far Away'

 

An illustration of a frontier party and dance from the October 1860 Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.

An illustration of a frontier party and dance from the October 1860 Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Photo by: Courtesy image

 

A 1765 engraving of John Gay, whose 1728 musical “The Beggar’s Opera” helped make the tune “Over the Hills and Far Away” a popular piece of music in early America. “The Beggar’s Opera” was being performed in Virginia by the mid 1760s where it was enjoyed by Thomas Jefferson.

 

Rufus Ward

 

We often hear about music that was popular during times of national crisis. There is the big band music of World War II, the hard times music of Woodie Guthrie during the Great Depression and the haunting melodies of the Civil War. The War of 1812 brought us the Star Spangled Banner and the Revolutionary War yielded Yankee Doodle. What we don't hear a lot about is the music that was popular in the Upper Tombigbee Valley around the time of the founding of Columbus.  

 

As one might well expect there are very few references to the specific music enjoyed in the Columbus area prior to and at the town's founding. During the Creek Indian War phase of the War of 1812, U.S. troops and militia were frequently passing along St. Stephens Trace (it ran north and south just west of the Tombigbee River) and were at times stationed at John Pitchlynn's fortified residence at Plymouth Bluff. An account has survived of the Mississippi Territorial Militia departing from the Natchez area to defend the Tombigbee Valley from Creek Indian attack during the fall of 1813. 

 

The Mississippi troops ventured off to war to the tune of "Over the Hills and Far Away." That had been a popular song in the British military since the early 1700s. It is interesting in that there were several different lyrics to the tune and there may well have been words crafted locally in Mississippi. 

 

The first definite mention of the tune was in a collection of songs, "Wit and Mirth: or Pills to Purge Melancholy," which was published by Thomas d'Urfey c. 1698. It first appeared with lyrics in 1706 in "The Recruiting Officer," a play by George Farquhar. The play was a comedy about the "rather interesting and sometimes sexual" exploits of two British officers. It was a tune that became very popular with the British military. The words to "Over the Hills and Far Away" as they were found in that play are: 

 

 

 

Our 'prentice Tom may now refuse 

 

To wipe his scoundrel Master's Shoes, 

 

For now he's free to sing and play 

 

Over the Hills and far away. 

 

 

 

refrain 

 

Over the Hills and O'er the Main, 

 

To Flanders, Portugal and Spain, 

 

The queen commands and we'll obey 

 

Over the Hills and far away. 

 

 

 

We all shall lead more happy lives 

 

By getting rid of brats and wives 

 

That scold and bawl both night and day - 

 

Over the Hills and far away. 

 

refrain 

 

 

 

Courage, boys, 'tis one to ten, 

 

But we return all gentlemen 

 

All gentlemen as well as they, 

 

Over the hills and far away. 

 

refrain 

 

In 1728 John Gay wrote the Beggar's Opera which was more of a musical comedy than an opera. It became the most performed play of the 1700s and by the 1760s was very popular in the American colonies. One of the "hit" songs in the play was "Over the Hills and Far Away." Thomas Jefferson even included the song in a listing of music that he enjoyed. Gay's lyrics were: 

 

 

 

Were I laid on Greenland's coast, 

 

And in my arms embrac'd my lass; 

 

Warm amidst eternal frost, 

 

Too soon the half year's night would pass 

 

 

 

refrain 

 

And I would love you all the day. 

 

Ev'ry night would kiss and play, 

 

If with me you'd fondly stray 

 

Over the hills and far away. 

 

 

 

Were I sold on Indian soil, 

 

Soon as the burning day was clos'd, 

 

I could mock the sultry toil 

 

When on my charmer's breast repos'd. 

 

refrain 

 

 

 

The tune was well suited for fife and drum, and just as it had been in England, it became popular with American militias, including the Mississippi Territorial Militia in 1813. What we do not know is whether the Mississippians preferred the British military lyrics, Gay's lyrics as enjoyed by Jefferson or had their own.  

 

While there are accounts of dances in the early days of Columbus, not much was said about the specific songs that were popular. One exception is found in the writing of Gideon Lincecum who settled at the present site of the Stennis Lock and Dam boat landing in 1818. In various letters he told of the music he would play on his violin. He mentioned playing "Washington's Grand March," "General Harrison's March," "Hail Columbia," and the "No. 1 Cotillion of the Beggar's Set." 

 

One tune more than any other was a part of Lincecum's life. Every Christmas morning for 63 years he would go onto his porch barefooted, face the rising sun and on his violin play "Killiecrankie." The song, which he called "Gillie Crackie," is an old Scottish ballad celebrating the victory of the Jacobite Earl of Claverhouse, "Bonnie Dundee," over the forces of William of Orange at the Pass of Killiecrankie in 1689. Though the song was composed soon after the battle, the lyrics of the first three verses were written by Robert Burns in 1789: 

 

 

 

Whaur hae ye been, sae braw lad 

 

O Whaur hae ye been, sae brankie 

 

O Whaur hae ye been, sae braw lad 

 

Cam ye by Killiecrankie O 

 

 

 

An ye had been whaur I hae been 

 

Ye wadna been sae cantie O 

 

An ye had seen what I had seen 

 

I' the braes O Killiecrankie O 

 

 

 

I fought at land, I fought at sea 

 

At hame I fought my auntie 

 

But I met the devil and Dundee 

 

On the braes O Killiecrankie O 

 

 

 

Music has always played a part in the lives of people living in the Tombigbee Valley. The roots of that music run deep and across the ocean.

 

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at rufushistory@aol.com.

 

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