Story Songs and Paul Revere

The events leading up to the American Revolution make a first-rate story, much richer than the simple version we learned in fourth grade. Paul Revere's Ride by David Hackett Fischer opened it up for me, full of interesting characters and engaging details.

Good stories make fine songs, so why not Paul Revere's story? Longfellow did beat me to it by 150 years, but he got a lot of parts wrong. With Dr. Fischer on my side I offer this new telling.

Before the days of radio and TV, story songs were prime evening entertainment—and the longer the better. These days we're not so patient, so I've generously pared down the story to just 19 verses. If you're feeling expansive check out the unabridged version, which includes more of the English army's side of the story.

Here's a singing video, with many cool historical paintings and concertina accompaniment.

And here's the notated melody.

After absorbing the story you can click on the      dots for extra background info (all from Dr. Fischer's book) or on the pictures to see larger versions.

Paul Revere's Ride

General Gage sits home in Boston, Margaret by his side

Your colonists have vexed me sore since first you were my bride

The more I’m lenient and respect the law and treat them well

The more they act licentious and affront me and rebel

Thomas Gage (commander of British forces in the new world and Governor of Massachusetts) was regarded even by enemies as a wise and well-intentioned man, in a difficult situation. He married and loved Margaret Kemble, an American heiress from New Brunswick NJ.

But now my orders say to strike and sparing no details

Put down the mob just like the ones in Ireland and in Wales

Seize the leaders and disarm the populace they say

You’ve always kept my secrets and I know you will today

England had suppressed over 150 riots and rebellions over the previous 35 years in the British Isles and colonies, many using the army and involving some of the same regiments now in Boston. Locking up leaders and seizing munitions was standard practice.

All in a day, all in a day

In the colony of Massachusetts Bay

Today this is an English land, tomorrow who can say

What changes may begin all in a day

Paul Revere was sitting over at the Cromwell's Head

My friends, all this activity means nothing good, he said

The officers all talking and the longboats all deployed

We must find out the plan or see our liberty destroyed

Revere belonged to many unofficial political associations, which often held meetings in Boston taverns. Despite Gage's secrecy unusual preparations were clearly noticeable, as when the Navy Admiral (who despised taking orders from landsmen) lowered his longboats in broad daylight.

A message—Dr. Warren bids you quickly to his side

Revere’s away to Warren's house as fast as he can stride

A friend I have says Warren, close to Gage as close can be

Who knows his plan and risking all has now sent word to me

Dr. Joseph Warren, the only major Whig leader other than Revere still in Boston, never revealed his informant's identity. But evidence points to Margaret Gage, torn between loyalty to her husband and her countrymen. Gage sent her to England soon after, and an estrangement followed.

800 men across the Back Bay rowed by Navy crew

It's Sam and John they’re after and the Concord cannons too

If you can make for Lexington take this dispatch with speed

Dawes bears the same across the Neck, I pray you both succeed

Before Back Bay was filled Boston was a peninsula with a narrow neck; Gage chose to transport his soldiers by boat to avoid detection. They aimed to arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock, major Whig leaders removed to Lexington for safety, and sieze munitions stored in Concord. William Dawes also carried Warren's message, hoping to get through Boston Neck where he knew the guards.

Friends row Paul across the harbor then without delay

But the mighty warship Somerset lies anchored in their way

All boats and men from Boston bound for Charlestown to seize

A rowboat in the open would be surely caught with ease

Gage had closed the harbor to prevent messengers like Revere from spreading warnings of his troops' actions.

But a shadow from the rising moon the little boat did hide

Bright sky above, bright sea below, they slipped through on the tide

Ashore it's Colonel Conant, yes your lanterns we could see

Your horse awaits but ride with care, patrols are out says he

In case he was trapped in Boston, Revere had arranged to signal Conant about any military expedition by showing "lanthorns" (lanterns with translucent sides sliced from cow horn) in the Old North Church steeple. Two if the army were crossing the Charles River; one if marching over Boston Neck.

The night is mild, the horse is fine, his heart is full with ease

What’s this? Two men in shadow, with cockades, beneath the trees

He wheels and spurs full fast away, the horsemen close give chase

But having no such splendid mare they soon fall off the pace

Gage had posted patrols to prevent messengers like Revere from spreading warnings of his troops' actions.

He gallops hard for Mystic then, far from his chosen route

But passing through wakes Isaac Hall to muster his men out

And now it's house by house—a knock, a shout to those within

As faint behind, the warning bells and signal guns begin

Through his associations Revere knew most local leaders, so when diverted unexpectedly through Mystic (present-day Medford) he was able to alert the militia Captain at his house and the Captain was confident to act on his message. With his personal connections Revere set in motion the pre-arranged network of alarms and express riders, and so reached the entire region rather than just a few houses.

Now at last to Lexington, the home of Reverend Clarke

Dismounting from the breathless horse he calls out in the dark

They’re all asleep, the Sergeant snaps, I'll have you not to shout

You'll have noise enough soon says Revere—the Regulars are out!

We imagine Revere saying "The British are coming!" But he wouldn't have, since in 1775 colonists still considered themselves to be British. Rather he said "Regulars", a common term for English soldiers.

He pounded on the heavy door till windows upward flew

Come in Revere, John Hancock calls, we're not afraid of you

But hearing what he says the household wakes in much distress

And Dawes arrives with his dispatch the danger to impress

Like Revere, Dawes made a brave contribution as a courier. Unlike Revere he did not know local leaders, and so the towns he passed through received alarms only indirectly later (and one not at all).

Refreshed in Buckman Tavern with militia men they speak

800 to arrest just two? That can't be all they seek

The Concord stores must be their aim, someone must warn that town

Again they mount their weary horses, now for Concord bound


On the road they meet young Dr. Prescott, smartly dressed

Out courting fair Miss Mulliken, now headed home to rest

But hearing what's afoot agrees to join them door by door

My neighbors know me and will heed your warning all the more

They warn each house along the road beneath a moonlit sky

Til at the edge of Lexington two mounted men they spy

They are but two then calls Revere, we'll have them lads, come on!

But suddenly the two are four with swords and pistols drawn

Turn off, turn off their leader cries or you're dead men I swear

And herds them off at pistol point like rabbits in a snare

But Prescott knows this pasture and they burst away again

He jumps a low stone wall and rides to warn the Concord men

As Dawes escapes as well ten angry men surround Revere

But facing pistols and abuse he speaks up without fear

I have alarmed the countryside and Gage's plan I know

Your men will face five hundred if to Lexington they go

Because of Gage's secrecy Revere knew more than his captors did about the army's expedition, which shocked them. He stressed the danger of going to Lexington as an attempt to divert the mission away from Adams and Hancock.

They tensely talk then leave and ride back east taking Revere

When in the darkness gunshots and a tolling bell they hear

They gallop then with news the land is rising up to fight

And Paul walks free to Lexington, his work done for the night


Then in the towns Revere passed through the leaders that he warned

Send couriers on routes arranged their neighbors to inform

In Cambridge, Natick, Salem, Bedford, Reading, Lynn, and Stow

Men wake and dress, say terse farewells, and off to Concord go

So here's a toast to all the men who rose to fight that day

To govern for themselves and from England break away

And here's a toast to Paul Revere that craftsman brave of heart

He was a son of liberty and boldly played his part

Copyright © 2014, Rick Mohr