Myth # 84: The tune “The World Turned Upside Down” was played as the British surrendered in Yorktown.

yorktown2

(Thanks to this week’s guest blogger, Deborah Brower, who wrote to debunk one of her favorite myths.)

In case you missed it, the story goes like this: when the British surrendered at Yorktown, they played a tune called “The World Turned Upside Down.”  

The problem is no one who was present at Yorktown said that at the time. It’s not until an 1828 memoir by a man named Alexander Garden that it appears in print.  Only one other veteran agreed but he was in his 80s by the time it came up.  He was speaking years after the memoir had been published and by then it had already entered the public imagination.  Also problematic is the fact that there are several melodies that are associated with that title.  Even if it were true, which one would it be?  In the end there is no reliable evidence that it happened.

I play historic music with a group called Tasker’s Chance.  When we were first putting music sets together, one of my band mates said, “We just have to play ‘World Turned Upside Down.’ It’s the tune they played at Yorktown and everyone asks for it.” It became a regular part of our performances. Then came an excellent article in the Williamsburg Journal (Oct/Nov 1999) by Dennis Montgomery: “If ponies rode man and grass ate the cows?”: Just What Tune was un the Air when The World Turned Upside Down? With a heavy heart, I shared it with the group.  We all liked the tune and were reluctant to toss it out.  All that was left was to make lemonade out of the lemons.

From the article I learned that the roots of the tune we play go back to the first part of the 17th century and a truly cataclysmic event in British history, the English Civil Wars.  The tune is catchy and was used with different sets of words.  Two sets of lyrics really appealed to me.  “When the King Enjoys His Own Again” is a hopeful vision of the return of Charles I to the English throne.  The other is a complaint about the banning of Christmas customs by the Puritans also titled the “World Turned Upside Down.”  The last line of the first verse of the song is “…old Christmas is kickt out of town.” Who could resist that?

Several years later I had a conversation with some musicians who were indignantly complaining their group NEVER plays the tune. If anyone asks about it, they set them straight in short order.  That’s a valid approach, but I look at it differently, especially since I like the tune.  I play it, but I also explain its story. I think it interesting that the story endures.  Maybe it’s because it sums up prevailing emotions in a single phrase anyone can understand. Perhaps it’s because the English Civil War and American Revolution have something in common, both fundamentally caused the British to rethink who they were.  In both cases, their world really was turned upside down.

 For more detail, read the article by Dennis Montgomery, editor of Colonial Williamsburg’s Journal, at http://www.americanrevolution.org/upside.html

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