“Legend holds that the British fifes and drums played The World Turned Upside Down as the Redcoats marched out from behind their ramparts to stack their arms at Washington’s feet. But did it actually happen?”
By Josh Provan
“THE BLOW WAS, on the whole, perhaps the heaviest that has ever fallen on the British army.” The great historian Sir William Fortescue did not understate the significance of the British defeat at the 1781 Siege of Yorktown.
The last major land engagement of the American War of Independence, the 21-day battle saw 9,000 elite British and allied troops under Lord Cornwallis surrounded on the shores of the Virginia Peninsula where the York River meets Chesapeake Bay. Encircling them were 16,000 Continental Army and French soldiers under the command of that colonial upstart George Washington. Cut off from escape by sea, thanks to a naval blockade led by the Comte de Grasse, and pounded without mercy by enemy artillery, the British were forced to seek terms for surrender on Oct. 19 after a humiliating three-week standoff.
It was certainly a topsy-turvy climax to a seven-year war that saw a rag-tag band of rebel volunteers hardened into an army capable of taking on and defeating the world’s foremost military power. Perhaps that’s why legend holds that the British fifes and drums played the sardonic tune The World Turned Upside Down (♬LISTEN HERE♬) as the Redcoats marched out from behind their ramparts to stack their arms at Washington’s feet. The tale seems a wholly fitting, but did it actually happen?
It took until 1948 for the story, which was long held to be true, to be called into question. That’s when historians searching the Library of Congress to confirm the details came up surprisingly empty. Researchers discovered that details about any songs played by the British during the surrender were conspicuously absent from official accounts of the event. Further investigation has yet to yield an answer. But we do know a few things.
Origins of the Song
The World Turned Upside Down can be traced back to a 17th Century English ditty that mocked Cromwell’s banning of Christmas traditions during the 11-year Interregnum period (1649 to 1660). Over the decades, the lyrics evolved with some versions even coming from colonial America. A common rendition features these words:
If buttercups buzz’d after the bee,
If boats were on land, churches on sea,
If ponies rode men and if grass ate the cows,
And cats should be chased into holes by the mouse,
If the mamas sold their babies
To the gypsies for half a crown;
If summer were spring and the other way round,
Then all the world would be upside down.
Listen to the song here, as performed in the 1985 film Revolution.
The only shred of evidence for the song being performed at Yorktown is a memoir written by a man named Alexander Garden in 1828. He specifically mentions it by name in his account of the surrender. Some years later, an 80-year-old veteran of the battle supposedly confirmed the fact. However, even in his own memoir, Garden admits he never heard it played himself — the information was passed down to him second and even third hand. The problem here for historians is obvious.
Despite the potency of the legend, which seems to have become popularized during the 19th Century, no scholar can accept it. The plain truth is that no first-hand account of the surrender actually mentions what was being played by British musicians at the capitulation.
There are still further (and more damning) arguments against the song being performed at all at Yorktown.
For starters, there’s the tricky point that there was no one single band at Yorktown. The British and German musicians would have been part of separate battalion bands and might well have been playing any number of regimental marches during the procession. Also, the road down which the British and allied troops marched to lay down to lay down their arms was roughly two miles long. Supposing that the song was played at all, it would only have been one of several used on the way to the surrender field. Even if it were performed by one regiments’ fifes and drums that day, the noise on the field would have been cacophonous as the various bands marched. To make matters worse, American musicians were reportedly playing their own music, at one point even striking up Yankee Doodle.
Following this thread, we have conflicting accounts from those who were present. The British were allowed to march out with drums “beating and colours flying,” as per the honours of war, but American witnesses describe the British music as being slow, melancholy and careless. And indeed, it has been convincingly argued that given the tune at issue was a variation of The King Enjoys His Own, it would be impossible to identify which march was being performed without lyrics being sung to accompany it. Some regiments it seems didn’t care to entertain the enemy with any fancy displays at all that day, let alone wish to imply some kind of irony in their choice of music. The British sources are silent on the matter.
The majority of authors therefore cannot be blamed for either dismissing the legend altogether or treating it with great care. That the story has lasted this long however, speaks to the significance of the moment in which it is set, and the wish to memorialize it further during the 19th Century. Perhaps the answer to why it has stayed in our memories so long is summed up by a line from the 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”