“The Country ’Squire” is a comic song that circulated in the 1770s in an engraved sheet music edition entitled The Chambermaid. It is a florid song with considerable range, appropriate for a professional singer in concert or in the theater. Thomas Nixon added this mildly risqué text to his collection of quite vulgar and bawdy songs made in Framingham, Massachusetts, in the 1780s and the text was printed well into the nineteenth century on English slip ballads (Nixon 3; Roud). It appeared in one songster in 1786 (R. Keller, Early American Songsters).
The earliest report of “How Stands the Glass” is in a ballad opera in 1729. The first line of the second verse, “Why Soldiers, Why,” is given as the indicated tune for air 4 in Thomas Odell’s Patron (1729). The lyrics of the air, beginning “Why, Charmer, why” are a parody of this text and fit the tune well. While the song must have existed before this parody appeared, no earlier trace of the song or tune has been located.
The music is not a march but rather a fairly free-flowing melody without military connotations other than in the text. By midcentury the song appeared in sheet music as a duet or trio for men’s voices, apparently a reflective commentary on a soldier’s precarious life meant to be sung in congenial company.
Its association with and appeal to military men seems to have been there from the beginning. The lyrics have a timeless nature and several American officers who compiled songbooks in their leisure time included this song in the 1770s and 1780s (Armstrong; Bush, “New Collection”; Fanning; Myers 6). Remembering the time he spent as a prisoner of war in 1776, Alexander Graydon (1752-1818) recalls that he tried to cheer up his messmates “most fervently realizing the sentiments of the song, that ‘a bottle and kind landlady cure all again’” (164).
Sometime after 1792 the song became associated with General James Wolfe, and is now almost universally attributed to Wolfe as the composer, or at least to Wolfe as singing the song the night before the battle of Quebec, which had occurred over thirty years earlier. As we have seen in the other Wolfe memorials (see The Death of General Wolfe), Wolfe enjoyed a sentimental revival in the 1790s and attribution of songs like this grew out of and capitalized on this renewed public interest. The spark for this new association probably came from the tune’s use in a popular concert piece called “The Siege of Quebec,” a sonata for keyboard, violin, cello, and timpani, around 1792 (A. Lewis 65; Winstock 58). This piece may have been written by Franz Kotzwara, but is usually credited to William B. De Krifft (Schnapper 576, 781). De Krifft may have taken the idea from the song’s use as the opening duet in William Shield’s opera Siege of Gibraltar (1780).
The song circulated widely in the 1795-1820 period in songsters, slip ballads, and broadsides; it appeared in fifty-six songsters between 1779 and 1820 (Roud; R. Keller, Early American Songsters). While the text and the tune are very stable, the title varies considerably.