Songs of Freedom
Music is a powerful tool for the promotion of any cause; this page is
devoted to the study of songs for one of the highest causes, human
What exactly is freedom? The term is used in many
ways, but this is the definition which is relevant to this project:
Freedom is the absence of forcible constraint on actions which do not violate
the rights of others.
Most restrictions on freedom are caused by government, since governments
possess a legal monopoly on the use of force. Non-governmental agents
can also impinge on freedom when the government is ineffective to stop
them or actively cooperates with them. However, freedom doesn't mean
simply having one's way, or not encountering obstacles. Thus, there are
songs which others might consider "songs of freedom" which won't be listed
Conversely, my listing an artist or song here shouldn't be construed
as an endorsement of anything and everything the artist may have said
about freedom. I may not even agree with the song
unreservedly, and I might have doubts about its artistic merit.
What I am saying by listing a song here is that it makes a pro-freedom
point, and does it in a way which can have a real impact on people.
These are songs which are worth knowing and worth singing because
they can make people feel that freedom is possible and is worth
MIDI files are provided for some of the songs. Click on the "MIDI" button
following the lyrics.
Anti-British and pro-independence songs were heard well before the
- Come On, Brave Boys
dates from 1734. A grand jury concluded that it was "highly defaming
the present Administration of His Majesty's Government in this Province
[New York], tending greatly to inflame the minds of His Majesty's
good Subjects, and to disturb and destroy that Peace and Tranquility
which aught to subsist and be maintained in this Colony and in all
other well-governed Communities." Since no author or publisher could
be discovered, the grand jury ordered the songs to be burned in public.
Many of the songs of the American Revolution have become
hackneyed through overuse. Some, such as "Yankee Doodle," really
don't say anything, but others are worth a fresh hearing, and
some deserve to be heard more.
- American Taxation,
by Peter St. John, predates Joseph Warren's better-known lyric
to "The British Grenadiers". Irwin Silber,in
Songs of Independence,writes that this "may well
be considered the opening anthem of the revolution."
- The American Hero,
by Andrew Law (1748-1821), expresses courage in the defense of freedom in formal,
solemn terms. It was "made on the battle of Bunker-Hill, and the
burning of Charlestown," not long after these events.
- Chester, by William Billings
(1746-1800) is the best known of Billings' songs, combining
strong religious feelings with military expressions of defiance.
- Free America,
by Dr. Joseph Warren, to the tune
of "The British Grenadiers," was originally titled "Liberty Song." The
version given here is transcribed from a published facsimile of an
early edition. Many songs of this period rhyme "America" as if the final
"a" were long.
- The Hildebrands give another "British Grenadiers" song, titled
"General Washington" or "War and Washington," by Jonathan
- Cornwallis Country Dance,
anonymous, to the tune of "Yankee Doodle," commemorates Greene's
hit-and-run campaign against Cornwallis, which helped to bring about
the American victory at Yorktown.
- God Save the Thirteen States,
anonymous, is one of many songs of the period set to the tune of
"God Save the King."
- Liberty Song, words by
John Dickinson, written in 1768, was well-known enough to have been the
subject of parody and counter-parody.
The following songs date from the period shortly following the Revolution
(to about 1800), when it was still a recent memory and passion for freedom
continued to be strong.
- Revolutionary Tea,
celebrating the Boston Tea Party, was written some time after the
war, probably in the first half of the 19th century.
- Rights of Woman,
published in the Philadelphia Minerva,
Oct. 17, 1795, is one of the earliest American songs pointing out that
rights apply equally to both sexes.
- Hail Columbia, by F. Hopkinson to the tune of Phylo's
"President's March" (1789). This lyric dates from 1798 and
was written when war with France seemed likely. In spite of its
strong sentiments, it avoids taking sides in then-current American
- Jefferson and Liberty
was a popular song during Jefferson's Presidential campaign of 1800, and
reflects the widespread hostility toward the Federalists' Alien and
Sedition Acts. D. and G. Hildebrand state:
"This Irish tune called 'The Gobby O' was known in America as 'Wanton Wishes'
and 'Jefferson and Liberty.'
Spirituals and Anti-Slavery Songs
Many of the spirituals sung by slaves in the Old South show a clear
longing for freedom, couched in unimpeachable religious terms.
The more explicit anti-slavery verses in some of these songs,
though, may be additions from the Civil War period.
- Go Down, Moses recalls the Biblical
story of the Hebrews held in bondage in Egypt.
- Michael is an example
of the spirituals in which the longing for freedom is couched in the
religious terms of crossing the Jordan River, which may have been
an intentional symbol for the Ohio.
- Free at Last is a very simple song with a direct point.
- I Got a Robe envisions freedom in Heaven.
- Steal Away
may have had an intentional double meaning.
- He's Just the Same Today
is about the constancy of God, but
the choice of examples -- the Hebrews' escape from bondage and Daniel's
refusal to "bow down to men" -- gives a pro-freedom subtext.
Other songs addressed the issue of slavery more directly.
No More Auction Block
is sometimes referred to as a "spiritual," but appears to have
originated in the heat of the Civil War and to have been sung by
freed slaves who fought on the Union side. The references to
"pint of salt" and "peck of corn" denote slave rations.
- O Freedom makes
no attempts at hiding its meaning. I haven't had the privilege of
hearing it performed, but it is powerful even on paper.
John Brown's Body, in its original
form, was a memorial to a soldier
with no political implications. I have read that the song was originally
about a long-forgotten John Brown, and later applied to the man who led
the Harper's Ferry raid. Its tune was used by Julia Ward Howe for
"The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
was written by Edna D. Proctor; though it's virtually forgotten
today, I consider it even better than "The Battle Hymn."
The Abolitionist Hymn
was often sung in anti-slavery meetings.
Lincoln and Liberty
expressed the anti-slavery feelings of Lincoln's supporters.
The Underground Railcar,
written by George N. Allen and published in 1854, tells of a slave's
escape to Canada.
Other Historical Songs
Songs of freedom have appeared at every point in U.S. history. Songs
were written in defense of causes now lost, as well as goals which
- Song of 1857:
In 1857, President Buchanan sent army troops into Utah against the
Mormons; they were met with some guerilla resistance before the
matter was resolved peacefully. This song was written by Utah rebels.
- Maryland, My Maryland, by
James Ryder Randall, though it was written
in support of the Confederate cause, can be considered a song of freedom
because it protested very legitimate grievances. In its effort to
keep Washington, D.C. from being cut off from the Union, the
government resorted to draconian measures to retain Maryland,
suspended the writ of habeas corpus and imposed military occupation
on the state. While this song has long been associated with the tune
"O Tannenbaum," there is evidence that it was originally intended to
be sung to a tune called "O Normandy."
- An Old Indian is one
of the few songs I've found so far
on the denial of American Indians' freedom. I'd be glad to learn of
- Vot Vos You Up to, Uncle Sam?
protests the United
States' becoming foreign dominators of the Philippines after aiding
their overthrow of their erstwhile Spanish dominators. The use of
dialect may make the song appear offensive to some modern readers,
but it is used here to show the immigrant's
situation, not to insult him.
In Ireland during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the
repressive Penal Laws provoked widespread anger and strengthened
the drive for independence. A number of Irish songs reflect this
outrage and a love of freedom.
- The Harp That Once Through Tara's Halls shows the
use of the harp as a symbol of Irish freedom.
- The Minstrel Boy also
makes symbolic use of the
harp, as well as showing the bard as warrior.
- The Wearing of the Green
is probably a protest
against the Penal Laws, whether or not it was ever literally
illegal to wear a shamrock.
Filk music is the folk music of science fiction and fantasy fandom.
Because of the strong libertarian strain among science fiction fans,
many filk songs have a strong libertarian element. Particularly worth
citing are the songs of Leslie Fish. More information on her, including
available recordings, can be found on
Web page on her.
Here are just a few of the songs of freedom which she has written:
- Brother Christian. Sometimes misread even by her admirers, this
song denounces -- and delares intent to resist forcibly, if necessary --
Christians who use the government to make everyone conform to their
- Desolation Valley. Two ways to escape to freedom --
which do you choose?
- Harvester. Plowshares can be beaten into swords at need.
- No High Ground. When is it time to throw off
an oppressive government?
- The Paper Sea. The primary beneficiary of welfare is
- The Sun is Also a Warrior. A god answers a plea to end
all war -- but the cost is all of freedom.
- They Were Having a Sale at the Gun Store. A story
of what happens when the "Jukes boys" go on a crime spree, illustrating
the importance of the freedom to bear arms.
Here are some other songs by filk writers which deal with freedom:
- March of Cambreadth by Heather Alexander. A powerful
song of marching to resist an invading army. If the invaders could
hear a roomful of filkers joining in the refrain line, "How many of
them can we make die?" they'd probably turn around without even trying.
- Censors by Bob Kanefsky, to the tune of "Sentries" by
Leslie Fish. Bob Kanefsky is a brilliant parodist; this song deals
with those who want to censor what we read.
- The winners
of the Liberty Round Table's Virtual Con 1 filk contest are now available.
I should (or at any rate, will) include a plug for my
Mad Scientist's Songbook.
Modern Folk Songs
The term "folk song" is used today to denote a certain style, regardless
of whether the origin of the song is shrouded in obscurity or not.
Modern folk music is often influenced by socialist ideas, but also
captures a rebellious spirit. It's necessary to look carefully,
and not include every folk song which has the word "freedom" in it,
but some gems can be found.
- Christmas in the Trenches, by John McCutcheon,
based on a true story,
tells of some German and English soldiers who for one night
allowed themselves to be friends rather than being opposed by
the orders of their respective governments.
- The Idiot by Stan Rogers. This song of a Canadian
going west rather than going on welfare includes the telling line,
"The government dole will rot your soul." (See the Summerfolk
Stan Rogers page.)
- Deportee and Biggest Thing that Man Has Ever Done
by Woody Guthrie. "Deportee" tells about migrant workers being harassed
by the government, and "Biggest Thing" is a semi-comic song which
mentions a number of triumphs for freedom.
- The Heart of The Apaloosa, by
tells of the persecution and decimation of the Nez Percé Indians.
Popular and Show songs
Popular music tends to avoid controversy, but songs promoting freedom
can be found in this area.
- 'T Ain't Nobody's Biz-ness If I Do,
popularized by jazz performers such as
Fats Waller and Billie Holiday, is defiant, but some of its
verses aren't exactly philosophically consistent. One of my
sources attributes it to Clarence Williams, another to
Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins.
- Der Führer's Face, originally used in an
eponymous Donald Duck cartoon and later popularized by Spike
Jones, gives a Bronx cheer to Nazi regimentation.
- Do You Hear the People Sing?, from Les Miserables,
is a powerful song, expressing the feelings of revolutionaries in
- Something for Nothing, performed by Rush, reminds
the listener that "you can't have freedom for free." Their cantata
2112 presents a rediscovery of freedom, loosely adapted from
Ayn Rand's Anthem, in a rather confusing form.
I don't claim to understand Rush very well; there are many
Web sites dedicated to them.
- The Farmer on the Dole, by "P. D. Q. Bach" (Peter
Schickele), satirizes the governmental practice of paying farmers
not to grow crops. (See Theodore Presser Company's
P. D. Q. Bach page.)
David and Ginger Hildebrand, George Washington: Music for the
First President, the Hendrickson Group, P. O. Box 766, Sandy
Hook, CT 06482
Libertarian Party's list of the top 25 liberty songs
There may have been
accesses to this page since some unknown date.
Copyright 1997-2001 by Gary McGath
Last revised May 14, 2002