A Negro Volunteer Song

Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, Boston

Today I found the following poem as a news clipping in a scrapbook contained in the Norwood P. Hallowell Papers, 1850-1914 at the Massachusetts Historical Society.  It’s titled, “A Negro Volunteer Song” and was written by a private in Co. A, 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

Fremont told them when the war it first begun,
How to save the Union, and way it should be done;
But Kentucky swore so hard, and old Abe he had his fears,
Till every hope was lost but the colored volunteers.
Chorus—O, give us a flag, all free without a slave,

We’ll fight to defend it as our Fathers did so brave,
The gallant Comp’ny A will make the rebels dance,
And we’ll stand by the Union if we only have a chance.

McClellan went to Richmond with two hundred thousand
He said “keep back the niggers,” and the Union he would
Little Mac he had his way, still the Union is in tears,
Now they call for the help of the colored volunteers.
Chorus—O, give us a flag, &c.

Old Jeff says he’ll hang us if we dare to meet him armed,
A very big thing, but we are not all alarmed,
For he first has got to catch us before the way is clear,
And “that’s what’s the matter” with the colored volunteers.
Chorus—O, give us a flag, &c

So rally, boys, rally, let us never mind the past,
We had a hard road to travel but our day is coming fast,
For God is for the right and we have no need to fear,
The Union must be saved by the colored volunteer.
Chorus—O, give us a flag, &c

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19 comments… add one
  • Scott A. MacKenzie Oct 21, 2011

    I imagine it is supposed to sing it to the tune of “The Battle Cry of Freedom.” The history within the lyrics reflects accurately the history of the time.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 21, 2011

      I need to follow up on that. You are probably right.

      • Jeffry Burden Oct 21, 2011

        Richie Havens recorded a version of this 20+ years ago, with presumably something like the original tune. Fast tempo, but definitely not “B C of F” or anything else I’d heard before. It appears on the cd “Songs of the Civil War” (Columbia Records, 1991).

        • Kevin Levin Oct 22, 2011

          Thanks, Jeffry. I am going to have to look it up.

          • Scott A. MacKenzie Oct 22, 2011

            Here’s a version on Youtube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bs95tqXw_Mg

            • Scott A. MacKenzie Oct 22, 2011
              • Kevin Levin Oct 22, 2011

                Thanks, Scott.

              • Ray O'Hara Oct 22, 2011

                yes the Richie Haven’s version is better. the tune reminded me of something and then it hit me, Johnny Horton’s ‘Sink the Bismarck’
                I checked it out and it does seem Johnny lifted the tune.

          • Timothy Orr Oct 23, 2011

            Lt. Freeman Bowley also mentions this song in his memoir. It is on page 63 of Keith Wilson’s book. Bowley says it goes to the tune of “That’s What’s the Matter, Boys.”

            • Kevin Levin Oct 23, 2011

              Thanks, Timothy. I will check it out.

  • Ray O'Hara Oct 21, 2011

    Yes Scott it does work very nicely with ‘John Brown’s Body’
    good catch.

  • TF Smith Oct 22, 2011

    Couple of nice shots at McClellan and Davis; is the “that’s what’s the matter with the colored volunteers” a response to a particular critic?

    Interestingly irreverant tone to the lyrics; definitely a precuror to “Blood on the Risers” and “Bless ’em All”…maybe a little “Dogface Soldier” as well.

    World War II Memory?

  • Peter Oct 22, 2011

    I’m surprised you hadn’t come across this before in your research on the Crater. It is reprinted in William Wells Brown’s _Negro in the American Rebellion_ from a Boston newspaper.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 23, 2011

      I’m sure I did and just forgot about it. Nice to hear from you.

  • Matt Gallman Oct 23, 2011

    This was published in The Liberator.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 23, 2011

      Thanks for the reference, Matt. I wonder if it is also published in the Christian Recorder.

  • Kirsten Schultz Nov 2, 2011

    My comment was eaten, so I am going to try for a reconstruction:

    Since at least 1867, the lyrics have been associated with Billy Holmes’s “Hoist Up the Flag” (1863).
    H/t to the blog Vast Public Indifference for the Google link to _The Negro in the American Rebellion_ and to the Silber anthology of ACW music:

    Here is a MIDI version of Septimus Winner’s arrangement of “Hoist Up the Flag”:
    http://pdmusic.org/winner.html (scroll down to 1863 for links to the tune and the sheet music of this arrangement)
    The Levy Collection’s copy of the sheet music: https://jscholarship.library.jhu.edu/handle/1774.2/21689
    A couple examples of Youtube videos that use an arrangement or variant of this melody:
    (as my browser is misbehaving today, I will add more information in a separate comment)

    • Kevin Levin Nov 2, 2011

      This is great, Kirsten.

      Thanks so much for following up with another comment. I am not sure what happened.

    • Kirsten Schultz Nov 2, 2011

      The Library of Congress song sheet (not the same thing as sheet music) database, “America Singing” lists several editions, versions, and parodies of the lyrics to Hoist up the Flag, including this one, which may be earlier that the lyrics in the Winner arr: http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/amss:@field(DOCID+@lit(cw100960))

      A test singing demonstrated that the lyrics and tune fit quite well together. The first lines of the opening verses of two versions of “Hoist” and “Give Us” end similarly: “first begun”, A more detailed examination may reveal further links between these different lyrics.

      I forgot to mention that the 1867 appearance of “Give Us” in _The Negro in the American Rebellion_ (157) cites a Boston newspaper, the Boston Transcript, as the printed source for the TNitAR version.

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