Thursday, August 25, 2011

"Battle Hymn of the Republic" -- The Evolution of an Iconic American Anthem

There are some songs that, when performed in a crowd, tend to elicit spontaneous audience participation. I’ve seen videos of Britons reacting in this way to the William Blake/Hubert Parry anthem, "Jerusalem" and I’ve seen Americans respond in a similar way to "Battle Hymn of the Republic" during our "Songs of the Civil War" program. What is it about this song that elicits such a powerful emotional response?

I have an inkling as to why that might be so, but before I lay out my opinions before you, here’s some background information on the evolution of this iconic song. The John Brown of the Union marching song, "John Brown’s Body Lies a’Moulderin’ in the Grave" was not originally the crazed Kansas Abolitionist who seized the Harper’s Ferry arsenal in 1859 in order to initiate and arm a slave revolt. Rather, he was Sergeant John Brown of Boston, who was very much alive, a member of the Second Battalion, Boston Light Infantry, a second tenor in that battalion’s glee club, and, according to pop musicologist David Ewen, someone who often bore the brunt of jokes. One of these was the creation of new lyrics which included his name and set to the tune of the then-familiar camp meeting song, "Say Brothers, Will You Meet Us?" creating what was apparently a hilarious parody. Guess you had to be there.

The song grew in popularity as Sergeant John Brown was forgotten and replaced in a most serious manner with John Brown the abolitionist, who had indeed been in the grave several years by the summer of 1861 when the Massachusetts 21st regiment sang the song in an unforgettable manner while marching through NYC en route to battle. The regiment was instantly dubbed “The Hallelujah Regiment” and the song swept the Union.

One day the fall of 1861, after Julie Ward Howe – whose husband was a member of a Military Sanitary Commission – had been visiting Union army camps, she was asked by a friend, who was a man of the cloth, to write different lyrics to the song. In her own words, this is what followed:

“I replied that I had often wished to do so. In spite of the excitement of the day I went to bed and slept as usual, but awoke next morning in the gray of the early dawn, and to my astonishment found that the wished-for lines were arranging themselves in my brain. I lay quite still until the last verse had completed itself in my thoughts, then hastily arose, saying to myself, ‘I shall lose this if I don’t write it down immediately.’ I searched for an old sheet of paper and an old stump of a pen which I had had the night before, and began to scrawl the lines almost without looking, as I had learned to do by often scratching down verses in the darkened room where my little children were sleeping. Having completed this, I lay down again and fell asleep, but not without feeling that something of importance had happened to me.”

She sent it to The Atlantic Monthly who published it in February of 1862, paying her a few dollars. It was reprinted in magazines and Union army hymn books and finally issued as sheet music by at least three different music houses, set to the tune of "John Brown’s Body."

The tune survived the Civil War and found its way to the accompaniment of many Presidential election songs in the years 1888, 1900, 1920, 1932, and 1944. It was played and sung, original lyrics attached, at many different seminal American events but the one that moves me the most occurred when Bobby Kennedy’s funeral train passed the railroad station in Baltimore, MD. The crowds that had gathered to pay their last respects to the Presidential aspirant spontaneously broke into song. That song was "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

What is it about this particular anthem that moves most Americans, probably more so than the national anthem? "The Star Spangled Banner" does have some great lines (and I’ve personally been moved to tears while singing it with WWII vets) but "Banner" was written during the war of 1812 when most white Americans were still simply transplanted Englishmen. "Battle Hymn," on the other hand, came from a war that would forever determine our national identity. Something of enormously significance had been born during the bloody conflict, bigger than either side could fully comprehend. When a group of Americans join in a chorus of "Battle Hymn," to this day, one can nearly capture a glimmer of that intangible largness.


"All the Years of American Popular Music" by David Ewen.

"Songs of the Civil War" by Irwin Silber

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