The Life and Times of the Star-Spangled Banner

Newgate's Garland

Once we know that Anacreon has the same meter as Packington's Pound, that opens the gate to a huge number of songs with the same meter. As mentioned earlier, Packington's Pound was one of the most popular tunes in the history of English language popular music. One song to this tune stands out as important in the history of popular song. It is one of the few that still echoes today. In its time it was extremely influential.

The period following 1660 is known as the Restoration, and refers to the restoration of the English monarchy following Puritan rule. After 12 years of moral repression under the Puritans, England was ready to party. And party it did, for much longer than the period of Puritan rule. In fact the party was still going on in the 1720s.

In the 1720s, Jonathan Wild was a crime boss. At the time, although it was a crime to commit a robbery, it was not a crime to plan or organize one. Wild took advantage of this loophole in the law to run a gang, but not participate in the actual robberies and other crimes. When a gang member got out of line, he could turn him in and collect the reward, since he himself had committed no crime. He set up shop as someone who could recover stolen property, for a fee. He was very good at it, because, in most cases, it was his gang that had stolen the goods in the first place. Like other crime bosses, he craved respectability. He took credit for returning recovered booty to its rightful owner, after he had been the one to steal it. He cultivated a reputation as a "thief-catcher." Most of the thieves he caught were members of his own gang.

One of the people he turned in was a member of his gang named Joseph Blake, known to us as Blueskin (the reason for the nickname is unknown.) During his trial, in which Wild provided key testimony, Blueskin was smuggled a knife. Once he was sentenced to hang and had nothing to lose, he attacked Wild with his knife. Contrary to the song, Wild survived the attack. This was, however, the beginning of the end for Jonathan Wild. Blueskin's attack drew attention to the real nature of his activities, and Parliament passed a law prohibiting the kind of fraud that Wild engaged in. He was eventually hung for his crimes. According to one story, he picked the pocket of the clergyman whose job it was to comfort him in his final moments.

The poet and playwright, John Gay, wrote a song about these dramatic events. It was a huge hit. Gay was looking to capitalize on the success of the song when he made a trip to Scotland. While there, he saw a play called The Gentle Shepherd. The Gentle Shepherd is a very nice but conventional play about two lovers, living in the countryside, who overcome obstacles to True Love, and live happily ever after. It did one thing that was very unusual. It was a musical, one of the first in the English language. In addition, all of the tunes were taken from well known songs, the top hits of the time. This style of play came to be known as a ballad opera. The modern day equivalent would be a musical in which all of the tunes are rock, rap, jazz or other pop standards. In today's copyright environment, a modern ballad opera is impossible.

John Gay made the song he had written into a ballad opera, called The Beggar's Opera. It was an even bigger success than the song had been. In fact, ballad operas become extremely popular for the next several decades. Three Penny Opera, which is ultimately derived from The Beggar's Opera, is still performed on a regular basis today. In a sense, Blueskin, Joseph Blake, is the real Mack The Knife.

A few words of explanation of the song are needed. Newgate is the court where Blueskin's trial was held. A garland literally means a bouquet of flowers, but is often used as a metaphor for a collection of songs, or, sometimes, just a single song. The song takes the point of view that Jonathan Wild was a virtuous character who prevented crime. As we have seen, that is at least debatable. The song is social satire. It equates the fees of doctors and lawyers with highway robbery. Politicians are in it for the money, as is just about everyone else. Now that the thief-catcher is gone, says the song, anyone can rob, not just the rich and powerful. How things have changed. Not.

Woodcut of Jonathan Wild

Newgate's Garland


Ye gallants of Newgate whose Fingers are nice [Newgate: a prison in London]

In diving in Pockets, or cogging of dice;

Ye Sharpers so rich, who can buy off the Noose,

Ye honester poor Rogues, who die in your Shoes,

Attend and draw near,

Good News ye shall hear,

How Jonathan's Throat was cut from Ear to Ear,

Now Blueskin's sharp Pen-knife hath set you at Ease,

And ev'ry Man round me, may Rob, if he please.

When to the Old-Baily this Blueskin was led, [Old-Baily: the court]

He held up his Hand, his Indictment was read:

Loud rattled his Chains. Near him Jonathan stood,

For full Forty Pounds was the Price of his Blood. [The common fee for convicting a crminal]

Then hopeless of life,

He drew his Penknife,

And made a sad Widow of Jonathan's Wife;

But Forty Pounds paid her, her Grief shall appease,

And every man round me, may Rob, if he please.

Knaves of Old to hide Guilt, by their cunning Inventions,

Call'd Briberies Grants, and plain Robberies Pensions:

Physicians and Lawyers (who take their Degrees,

To be learned Rogues) called their Pilfering, Fees;

Since this happy Day,

Now ev'ry Man may

Rob (as safe as in Office) upon the Highway;

For Blueskin's sharp Penknife hath set you at Ease,

And every Man round me, may Rob, if he please.

Some cheat in their Customs, some rob the Excise,

But he who robs both is esteemed most Wise;

Church-Wardens, too prudent to hazard the Halter,

As yet only venture to steal from the Altar:

But now to get Gold,

They may be more Bold,

And rob on the high-way since Jonathan's Cold,

For Blueskin's sharp Penknife hath set you at ease,

And every Man round me, may Rob if he please.

Some, by Publick Revenues, which pass'd thro' their Hands,

Have purchas'd clean Houses, and bought dirty Lands;

Some to steal from a Charity think it no Sin,

Which, at home (says the proverb) does always begin;

But if ever you be

Assign'd a Trustee,

Treat not Orphans like Masters of the Chancery,

But take the highway and more honestly seize,

For every Man round me, may Rob, if he please.