N. p., ca. 1820-1830. Autograph ink manuscript (in brown and blue ink) to a pasted-together sheet of heavy unbleached wrapping paper measuring approx. 23.75 x 12.5 inches. Approx. 550 words in two columns. Docketed on the verso, “Lines of [sic] James Bird.” With the name “Daniel” in contemporary ink in the same hand on the recto and verso. A little worn and a few small stains; some impaired legibility to a few words as the sepia ink began to run low; in very good condition. Item #19573
“See him kneel upon his coffin / Sure his death Can do no good / Spare him mark! O God they’ve shot him / See his bosom stream with blood” An early version of what has been called the “gory ballad” of the brave James Bird, a western volunteer in the War of 1812 who was served alongside Perry during the Battle of Lake Erie but was subsequently executed for desertion in 1814. An account of Bird’s heroism as a local boy made good appeared in the Wilkes-Barre Gleaner November 16, 1813; an account of his execution (referring to Bird as a native of Kingston, Pennsylvania) and his final letter to his parents appears in the Gleaner of April 28, 1815 and the June 16, 1815 number includes the apparent first appearance of “James Bird.—A Ballad.” The evolution the ballad from a literary piece in the newspaper to a popular ballad (collected in the field as late as the 1930s) was a curious admixture of oral transmission and subsequent newspaper appearances, with printed broadside versions appearing as early as 1829 in Boston. This early manuscript version includes a few known variants, such as the first line here reading “Sons of freedom listen to me” rather than the original, “Sons of pleasure listen to me.” While the ballad itself seems to have remained more or less stable, the stories around it seem to have evolved during transmission—Bird called in various sources a native of Kingston, N. Y., or of Ohio; picturesque details and oral traditions eventually clung to the ballad like mussels to a hull, with the final shout of “Spare him!” later said to have been shouted by the great Perry himself as he arrived on the scene too late to save Bird from an unjust execution. This manuscript is in a rough and ready hand with certain idiosyncrasies of spelling, the cheap heavy paper stock suggesting what might be called a vernacular transmission of a popular tale of unjust authority; while the interplay of published versions with popular sentiment here has been subject to academic scrutiny, the record seems curiously mute on manuscript sources. See Richardson, Charles Francis and Elizabeth Miner (Thomas) Richardson. Charles Miner: A Pennsylvania Pioneer. Wilkes-Barre, 1916: 67-76. See also Norman Cazden et al. Folk Songs of the Catskills. Albany, 1982: 66-68. See also Traci Langworthy. “The Many Lives of James Bird: From ‘Mournful’ Ballad to Nostalgic Legend.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 142, no. 1 (2018): 49-81.