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Manuscripts/Mixed Material Columbia the Gem of the Ocean

O, Columbia, the gem of the ocean,
The home of the brave and the free...

"Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean" received an American copyright in 1843 and is credited to the name of David T. Shaw. Yet to understand the true origins of Shaw's song one must follow two threads. One thread leads to Thomas a'Beckett who claimed to have rewritten Shaw's lyrics before the song was copyrighted. The other thread leads to Stephen Joseph Meany who wrote the poem "Britannia, the Pride of the Ocean," from which, in turn, a'Beckett may have taken his lyrics.

About 1843, David Shaw, a Philadelphia singer, wrote a few patriotic lines and commissioned another performer, the actor and musician Thomas a'Beckett, to put them to music. A'Beckett, apparently not fond of Shaw's lines, rewrote them as he composed the tune. Shaw performed the new piece to great acclaim, but when the music was first published he alone was credited as both composer and lyricist. A'Beckett, credited only as the arranger, contested authorship and subsequently published his own version of the song.

A'Beckett may have authored the words to "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean," but the matter soon became more complex when he, in turn, was accused of plagiarizing the words of a British song, "Britannia, The Pride of the Ocean." It has been documented that the British journalist, Stephen Joseph Meany, wrote the poem "Britannia, the Pride of the Ocean" in 1842 but a'Beckett claimed "Britannia" was plagiarized from his song. Either way, Meany's lyrics and the Shaw/a'Beckett lyrics show a remarkable similarity:

Image: Columbia the Land of the Brave Columbia the Land of the Brave, written and composed by David T. Shaw. 1843. Music Division

Britannia, the pride of the ocean,
The home of the brave and the free,
The shrine of the sailor's devotion,
No land can compare to thee.
Thy mandates make heroes assemble
With Victory's bright laurels in view;
Thy banners make tyranny tremble
When borne by the red, white, and blue.

O, Columbia! the gem of the ocean,
The home of the brave and the free,
The shrine of each patriot's devotion,
A world offers homage to thee.
Thy mandates make heroes assemble
When Liberty's form stands in view;
Thy banners make tyranny tremble
When borne by the Red, White and Blue!

It is true that a'Beckett's song was very popular in London. But, as flag historian Rear Admiral George Preble noted, it would be quite odd for America (landlocked on two sides) to be termed a "gem of the ocean" when Britain was an island and commanded the world's finest Navy. On the other hand, in the early 1800s there were few U.S. merchant ships as acclaimed as the Columbia out of Boston, the first to carry the U.S. flag around the globe.

Sheet music from both 1843 and 1846 credited the American title as "Columbia, the Land of the Brave." Yet between these two dates, in 1844, the song was also published under the title it subsequently retained, "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean." Extremely popular during Abraham Lincoln's Civil War administration, the song became a standard tune in the U.S. Marine Corps Band's repertoire.

Related Web Sites
Print Bibliography
  1. Browne, C. A. The story of our national ballads. Revised by Willard A. Heaps. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1960. Call number: ML3551 .B88 1960.
  2. Clark, Kenneth S. Stories of America's greatest songs, 4th ed. New York: National Bureau for the Advancement of Music, 1941. Call number: ML3551 .C5 1941.
  3. Indiana University at Bloomington. Lilly Library. American Patriotic Songs [exhibit catalogue]. Bloomington, 1968. Call number: ML141 .B55 L5.

About this Item

Title
Columbia the Gem of the Ocean
Created / Published
Library of Congress, Washington, DC, 2002.
Subject Headings
-  Popular Songs of the Day
-  Songs and Music
-  Songs Collections
Genre
article
Online Format
online text
Additional Metadata Formats
METSXML Record

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Chicago citation style:

. Columbia the Gem of the Ocean. Library of Congress, Washington, DC, 2002. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200000004/. (Accessed July 28, 2016.)

APA citation style:

. (2002) Columbia the Gem of the Ocean. Library of Congress, Washington, DC. [Manuscript/Mixed Material] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200000004/.

MLA citation style:

. Columbia the Gem of the Ocean. Library of Congress, Washington, DC, 2002. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200000004/>.