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Morton's Pillory Plea

Updated: Nov 3

"Morton's Pillory Plea" will be the first song on Stuck Inside, the third installment in our "music in the time of coronavirus" collection. This song is a little different from the other songs with regard to the subject of the lyrics. I've written this blog post to explain what it is about.

G.J. Perrett: Thomas Morton of Merrymount being arrested by Myles Standish of the Plymouth Colony, 1628; from James Otis’s Ruth of Boston: A Story of the Massachusetts Bay.


The lyrics for this song were inspired by a New York Review of Books review essay by Christopher Benfey, "Pranksters and Puritans." The essay describes the life of Thomas Morton (the "prankster") and how he "attempts to provoke the Pilgrims and undercut the Puritans." It is worth simply reprinting the first paragraphs for the historical context:

Missing from the traditional Thanksgiving narrative—the brutal winter followed by the bountiful harvest—is the horrific epidemic that raged through the Native American community during the three years immediately preceding the 1620 arrival of the Mayflower. Rat feces on boot soles are believed to have carried lethal bacteria from European ships anchored along the New England coastline to Native villages. Whatever the precise nature of the disease, it worked with ruthless efficiency during the years 1616 to 1619. “The pace of death must have been terrifying,” Peter Mancall writes in The Trials of Thomas Morton, his book about a little-known chapter in the European settling of New England. “Most epidemics, even of highly contagious diseases like the plague, typically leave survivors. But this series of infections apparently killed almost everyone.” The Pilgrims regarded the “wonderfull Plague,” which decimated the Native farmers but left their cleared fields, as one more God-given thing to be thankful for.
Natives spared by the disease suffered another disaster in 1637, in what came to be known as the Pequot War but was more accurately a massacre. Colonists seized on various pretexts to slaughter 1,500 Natives in two months, including women and children in a village on the Mystic River that they deliberately torched. “It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire,” the Pilgrim leader William Bradford wrote of the atrocity, “and the streams of blood quenching the same.” Again, Bradford thanked a providential God for aiding his men, “thus to enclose their enemies in their hands and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enemy.”
But there were other challenges to the Pilgrims’ fragile utopian experiment, and to the more worldly and successful Puritan colony of Massachusetts Bay, founded in 1630, that eventually absorbed it. This threat arose from fellow Englishmen, many of whom regarded the Pilgrims, with their astringent separatist views that had taken them first to Holland and then to New England, and the more moderate Puritans, who wished to reform the abuses of the Anglican Church, with distaste. It would be difficult to imagine someone more abhorrent to the godly colonists than Thomas Morton, an adventurer, a libertine, a lover of the natural world, and a passionate admirer (and lover) of Native Americans. An Anglican loyal to the king and the national church, Morton was also some kind of lawyer, as well as some kind of poet. This real-life Sir Toby Belch, from his base in the aptly named settlement of Merrymount, seems to have taken particular delight in driving first the Pilgrims, then the Puritans, out of their minds.
It is the precise nature of the threat—or, rather, threats—posed by Morton that interests Mancall in his short, incisive, and enjoyable book. In order to suggest what might be at stake in a proper assessment of Morton, Mancall draws his epigraph from Philip Roth’s 2001 novel The Dying Animal, in which the narrator, a literature professor who preys on his female students, makes an extraordinary (and not disinterested) claim:
Our earliest American heroes were Morton’s oppressors: Endicott, Bradford, Miles Standish. Merry Mount’s been expunged from the official version because it’s the story not of a virtuous utopia but of a utopia of candor. Yet it’s Morton whose face should be carved in Mount Rushmore.
No such honor was forthcoming, of course, though Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts did proclaim May 1, 2011, Thomas Morton Day, urging “all the citizens of the Commonwealth to take cognizance of this event and participate fittingly in its observance.”

So, I understand the historical context as one where a disease-ridden cult of fanatical "Christians"--who thank their God for the slaughter of the indigenous people they hope to displace--try to oppress any other European settlers who are not part of their cult.


This article came out in February of 2021, a month after a treasonous band of Trumpists tried to undermine the 2020 election, and just before it became clear that most of Trump's base will resist getting vaccinated and wearing masks so that our modern-day plague of Covid-19 continues to mutate and kill more people. Whereas Morton is "stuck inside" the puritans' pillory, we are "stuck inside" this pandemic due to the fanatical beliefs of a quarter of the U.S. population.


As the Perrett etching above depicts, the Pilgrim's top cop, Miles Standish, arrested Morton. In my song, my Morton is, post-arrest, locked in the pillory making his plea to Standish. Morton's pillory plea, in my telling, flips the script and makes Morton the early American hero and paints "the princes of limbo" (as Morton called the Puritan's, alluding to Dante) as the fanatics they were--where even the most natural thing for humans like soaking up some sun and getting a tan is seen as sinful because it is associated with the supposedly wicked heathen natives.


When we think of the Salem witch trials, the parallel of the cult of QAnon and the cult of the Puritans doesn't seem so far-fetched. It seems that America was always "haywire," which makes me think that the subtitle of Kurt Andersen's excellent book--Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History--should have been "How European America Was Always Haywire."


This NYRB essay certainly changed the way I think about Thanksgiving. I will think about Morton and his "otherwise" "Utopia of Candor" when I celebrate Thanksgiving in the future--and I will try to honor the victims of the Puritans and pilgrims. I will teach my kids to do the same.


Further south near Jamestown, in 1619, a few years before Morton would have made his plea to Standish from the pillory, the first African slaves arrived in an English colony.


So, this should cover most of what the song is about. Hopefully, the song communicates these ideas more convincingly and artfully than I do here in this blog.


Morton’s Pillory Plea

(©2021 Anders/O’Bitz)


I don’t know

How much they pay for what you do

Captain Standish

Would any promises sway you

I don’t care if you take down my maypole

I only care if you plan to let me go


I don’t dare question any of their faith

I don’t dare as they pillory me to waste

I don’t dare fight your princes of limbo

I don’t dare make this colony my foe

I don’t dare


Hell no I don’t dare

Let the sunshine

Brown my skin so fair

Hell no sunshine will not do

Turn my skin so dark

Like the heathens do


Yes I know our New Canaan feels so new

And I know these heathens have more truth

Yes I know

They’re more human than me or you

And I know

This undermines your truth


Yes I know our freedom threatens you

And I know God smiles on all that’s true

And I know this by smiles on every face

Men, women, heathen, Christian, every case.

Yes I know


Hell no I don’t dare

Let the sunshine

Brown my skin so fair

Hell no sunshine will not do

Turn my skin so dark

Like the heathens do


Hell no I don’t dare

Let the sunshine

Brown my skin so fair

Hell no sunshine will not do

Turn my skin so dark

Like the heathens do


Hell no I don’t dare