18th Century Songbook


Below this introduction are links that will take you to the main divisions of this songbook, where you will find links taking you to the songs themselves. All but a handful of the songs (songs marked with an asterisk (*) are from Jackson's "English Melodies...") came from Joseph Ritson's "A SELECT COLLECTION OF ENGLISH SONGS" in Three Volumes. Printed for J. Johnson, London, 1783. Before going there, however, you may want to review a couple of topics.

If you are unfamiliar with 18th century print, you may want to educate yourself about the usage of the so-called "long s" or "medial s", which causes a lot of people to wonder why printers in the 18th century used an "f" where they should've used an "s". The simple fact is, they didn't - that thing that looks like an "f" is, in fact, an "s". The dual form of the s derives from the Greek, and it came into English-language typography by way of French practice.  The terminal s is always an s, as the Greek has a terminal sigma.  A pronounced s is given one or the other form, depending on where you are and when, while the silent s is given the other form, with fair consistency.  But it's the terminal position of the s, and whether it's pronounced or not, that determine which form it'll take. So if you see a word that looks to your 21st century eyes to be "fat" you need to train yourself to read it as "sat", and the same for many other words used in the songs. Information on the "long s" was kindly provided by Kevin Orlin Johnson, Ph.D.

For a more in depth explanation of the "long s" try an article entitled "Some Notes on "Ls" and "s" in "Analytical & Enumerative Bibliography", 3 (1979), 97-101; by William Proctor Williams of the Department of English at Northern Illinois University. For a thumbnail review, try this web page:

Next, for those of you who have tried to delve into 18th century songs before this, you probably discovered to your dismay that almost all 18th century songbooks don't contain what we today think of as songs at all. In fact, we'd call them books of poetry. To understand why, we need to review the history of song.

For many centuries and in many languages, the word "song" was synonymous with the word "poem". Witness the Iliad and the Odyssey of ancient Greece, which were the first "lyric poems". The first troubadors, as we might call them, would re-tell these epic tales while accompanying themselves on a lyre, hence the term "lyric poetry", and more modernly, "lyrics".

This type of singing didn't change throughout ancient Greece and Rome. Following the Dark Ages, there arose in Provençe a class of poet-musicians who wrote poems glorifying romantic love rather than heroic deeds. These spread throughout Europe, and are the poets we call troubadors, minstrels, minnesingers, meistersingers, etc.

Eventually, the task of writing the music and writing the lyrics became separated, and have pretty much remained that way until today (Rogers & Hammerstein, George & Ira Gershwin, etc.), although a few "troubadors", such as Bob Dylan or Sara MacLachlan, are still keeping the ancient ways of the balladeer alive.

In 1651 a revolution of sorts occurred when John Playford, a London printer, began publishing his "Dancing Master," a work which went through many editions in his lifetime, and even more posthumously. Indeed, the style of dances came to be known as "Playford" through Jane Austen's time and up until today. Playford's great contrbution was to bring together in print both musical notation and instructions for country dances to accompany the tunes. It's success spawned a number of imitators, although it would be more than a century before it occurred to someone to marry musical notations and songs in print.

Dancing, which Steele described as an imitation of Nature in its highest excellence, has played an important part in the development of music, in that it compelled attention to Time and Rhythm. The very origin of the word ballad (ballare, Italian, "to dance") suggests that ballads were originally dance pieces, sung by performers or onlookers during the act of dancing. "Sellenger's Round" is the oldest piece that can unquestionably be said to be an English country dance. The date usually given for it is from the third edition of Playford in 1670, but while the steps are from Playford, the music given in Playford is a variation on a tune by William Byrd from 1609. Many experts point out that our old English tunes were too quick for vocal uses, and hence, were used for dance. The oldest extant written song in the English language, "Sumer is icumen in" (Summer's coming in) found in a mid-12th century manuscript, with delicate melodic curves set in polished counterpoint, can be seen to be, in reality, a country dance. Dance tunes are the common origin of both Minstrelsy and Folk songs. Indeed, the later balladeers, with the printing press providing much of their bread and butter, designed their wares to be sung to country dance tunes of such clear pedigree as "Sellenger's Round." Other such clear examples are Greensleeves and Crimson Velvet. Sir Thomas Elyot, in The Governor (1531), describes the ancient modes of dancing, adding: "And as for the special names (of the dances) they were taken, as they be now, either of the names of the first inventors, or of the measure and number they do contain; or of the first words of the ditty which the song comprehendeth, whereof the dance was made."

After the Restoration came Henry Purcell (1659-1695), the greatest song-writer England ever produced, and with him arose such excellent musicians as Dr. Blow and Pelham Humfreys. Much of his instrumental music was published by his widow in 1697, as "A Collection of Ayres, Compos'd for the Theatre, and upon Other Occasions." In this body of music we find delightful dances of every imaginable kind.

In 1765, Thomas Percy published his "Reliques," a collection of English ballad texts. Beginning in 1758, and continuing until 1780, John Welcker of London published in piecemeal fashion "Clio and Euterpe or British Harmony an admired and rare collection of the most celebrated old English and Scotch songs, cantatas, duets & trios." featuring music and lyrics to songs by Handel, Purcel, Arne, Boyce, Green and many others (which work is presently being digitized at - see the hyperlink below.) Then, in 1783, Ritson produced his exhaustive collection of music and lyrics, a portion of which we have on these pages.


Love Songs

Drinking Songs

Miscellaneous Songs

Related Web Pages

The Music of George Washington's Time

The Dancing Assemblies of Philadelphia

English Country Dancing

Songs of the Revolutionary War

Clio and Euterpe
(another 18th century songbook)

Colonial Music Institute

The Music Of The 1770s: A Directory
This site has a list of some of the songs which were popular prior to and during the American Revolutionary War period. The songs are presented in greater detail on the linked pages. Midi files are included for some songs.

Mountain Fifes and Drums
A great group from Southern California

Music of the 18th Century
(The D Major Singers)

More Music of the 18th Century - The Contemplator

Hauley Music
Reproductions of 18th & 19th century musical items i.e. fifes, drums, recorders, folk instruments. Also copies of many 18th & 19th c. music books & manuscripts plus C.D.s, tapes & more.

Field Music of the Revolution

McNeil Music

Learn to Play the Fife

Fife and Drum Manufactory - Cooperman

The Itinerant Band

Wireharp Productions


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