British Grenadiers (The)

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BRITISH GRENADIERS, THE. AKA and see "Grenadier's March (2)." English, March, Reel, or Morris Dance Tune (4/4 time). D Major (Kerr, Raven, Sweet): G Major (Bacon, Wade). Standard tuning (fiddle). AABB (Kerr, Raven, Sweet, Wade): ABBABBACCACC (Bacon). The origins of the "British Genadiers," one of the most famous of English martial tunes, can be traced to a country dance and tune called "New Bath" published by Playford in the late 17th century, however it may be older than even that. William Chapell (Old English Popular Music, 1858) thought it may have derived from a tune in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book called "Nancy; or, Sir Edward Noel's Delight," or from a tune in Bellerophon (Amsterdam, 1622). Walker, in his History of Music in England (1924) concludes the present melody "is the result of some three centuries' evolution of an Elizabethan tune." One version was printed in the Edinburgh Musical Miscellany of 1738, and another version exists from 1745. By the time of the American Revolution, the tune was quite well known and had been popular for nearly a century; popular enough certainly to have fostered many 18th century parodies. According to Christopher Ward (1952) it was played by British military musicians during the Battle of Brandywine in September of 1777. The melody appeared in the revised version of the burletta pantomime The Mirror, or Harlequin Everywhere first staged at Covent Garden, London, on Nov., 30, 1779, then revised and reopened on January, 17th, 1780, after the Americans had been bloodily thrown back from Savannah, Ga., during the War of Independence (Winstock, 1970, p. 30). It was during the revision that "The British Grenediers" was added, "Sung by Mr. Reinhold." The song was picked up by the newspapers. Music for the pantomime was by Charles Dibdin, who typically composed some of the music, borrowed other pieces, and adapted still others--it is not known if he composed the music for the song or not.

It was well-known in the Colonies and by American musicians during and after the Revolution. It appears in William William's 1775 manuscript printed in Pautuxit, Rhode Island. The Henry Brown and Mr. Thompson manuscripts (1789 and 1790, respectively) included the tune, both calling it "Vain Britons, Boast No Longer," an expression of post-Revolutionary pride.

The subjects of the title, grenadiers serving in the English army, were originally soldiers who threw grenades "and thus tended to be long in arm, big, tall men" according to historian Byron Farwell (1981). Grenades went out of fashion for some time in European warfare, but grenadier companies consisting of the tallest men were usually attached to battalions and were thought of as specialized, somewhat elite troops, so that "...by the First World War the term 'grenadier' had so changed its meaning that when the grenade throwers returned to the battlefield there were objections to calling them grenadiers and they became known as 'bombers' (Farwell). It is a tradition, says David Murray (Music of the Scottish Regiments, Edinburgh, 1994, p. 179), that "The British Grenadiers" is the march past of all British fusilier regiments, "an allusion to the bursting grenade badge which all share in some form or another." Still, the march was jealously guarded by some in the British military, as recorded in this passage from Pall Mall Magazine[1] in 1898:

There is a tradition in the Devonshire Regiment that after [the Battle of] Salamanca the Horse Guards offered to make the 11th a Light Infantry regiment. The officers wished instead that it should be a Fusilier regiment; but the request could not be granted. By way of compensation, however, the regiment was permitted to march past to the strains of "The British Grenadiers"--a privilege granted only to Fusilier corps. Whatever truth there may be in this tradition, it is certain that the 11th Foot did between the years 1815 and 1840 go past to "The British Grenediers." Tradition further tells that, although forbidden by many generals to play this march, the Devonshire stuck tenaciously to it until stringent orders on the subject were issued by the Horse Guards. Then even the Colonel had to obey.

A page or two later the author states: "'The Grenadiers' March' is played in slow time by all foot regiments when trooping the colour, and 'The British Grenadiers' when escorting the colour. The Coldstreams and Scots have each only one slow and quick march, excepting for trooping the colour; they also play 'The Grenadiers' March' and 'The British Grenadiers.'"

"The British Grenadiers" has entered morris dance tradition as a polka step tune for North-West Morris and a Cotswold morris from the village of Longborough, Gloucestershire. See also Carolan's derivative melody "Grace Nugent."

The following lyrics appears with the tune in the Edinburgh Musical Miscellany:

Some talk of Alexander, and some of Hercules,
Of Conon and Lysander, and some miltiades;
But of all the world's brave heroes there'd none that can compare
With a tow, row, row, row, row to the British Grenadiers;
But of all the world's brave heroes there'd none that can compare
With a tow, row, row, row, row to the British Grenadiers.

Source for notated version:

Printed sources: Bacon (The Morris Ring), 1974; p. 252. Jarman (Old Time Fiddlin' Tunes); No. or p. 33. S. Johnson (The Kitchen Musician No. 4: Collection of Fine Tunes), 1983 (revised 1991, 2001); p. 3. Kerr (Merry Melodies, vol. 3), c. 1880's; No. 380, p. 42. Raven (English Country Dance Tunes), 1984; p. 150. Sweet (Fifer's Delight), 1964; p. 18 (two versions). Wade (Mally's North West Morris Book), 1988; No. 16. Westrop (120 Country Dances, Jigs, Reels, Hornpipes, Strathspeys, Spanish Waltz etc. for the Violin), c.1923; No. 45.

Recorded sources: F&W Records 4, "The Canterbury Country Orchestra Meets the F&W String Band" (1972). TR001, Trapezoid - "Trapezoid" (1975).

See also listing at:
Jane Keefer's Folk Music Index: An Index to Recorded Sources [1]




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  1. Walter Wood, "The Romance of Regimental Marches", Pall Mall Magazine, vol. 9, 1898, pp. 421-430.