News / Arts & Entertainment

Book Explores Roundabout History of 'Battle Hymn of the Republic'

"Battle Hymn of the Republic" by Mrs. Julia Ward Howe"Battle Hymn of the Republic" by Mrs. Julia Ward Howe
x
"Battle Hymn of the Republic" by Mrs. Julia Ward Howe
"Battle Hymn of the Republic" by Mrs. Julia Ward Howe
Richard Paul
Though the Battle Hymn of the Republic is more than 150 years old, it is still embraced by Americans of all political persuasions.  According to Ben Soskis, co-author of a new book about the song, that’s because it speaks to a particularly American sensibility.

“The idea that America has the providential responsibility to help bring the world into a realm of perfect peace and to bring freedom to the world,” he said.

That’s not how the song started out. It had a meandering path to become the iconic anthem it is today.

Book Explores Roundabout History of 'Battle Hymn of the Republic'
Book Explores Roundabout History of 'Battle Hymn of the Republic'i
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

“As far as we know, it can be traced back to an early Camp Meeting Revival hymnal in 1806,” Soskis said of the song “On Canaan’s Happy Shore.”

“It had the 'Glory, glory, Hallelujah’ chorus,” he said.

Fifty years later, during the Civil War, the Canaan song was popular with a group of Northern solders in Boston who had a man in their unit named John Brown - the same name as the famous abolitionist who had been hanged after trying to start a slave uprising in 1859.  The men in the unit liked to tease Brown about having such a famous name.

“They would say ‘Oh, there goes John Brown.’  And somebody else would say, ‘I thought John Brown was dead.’  And another would say, ‘Oh, but he's still marching on,’” Soskis said.

Eventually, Soskis says, the men turned their teasing jokes into a song.  The tune they picked was “Canaan's Happy Shore.’”  Over time, the song, “John Brown’s Body” became "probably the most popular marching song of the Union cause,” he said.

In the early days of the American Civil War, poet Julia Ward Howe visited Washington, D.C. with some fellow dignitaries. Outside the city she got stuck on a road jammed with soldiers.  To bide time, Soskis says, the Union troops were singing a rowdy version of, "John Brown's Body."  

“Her minister was sitting beside her and turns to her and says, ‘Julia, you know you really should write some decent words to that song,’” he said.

She went back to her hotel, he said, and woke in the middle of the night …“With the words literally marching in her head,” Soskis said.

x
After the Civil War, there were many who pushed to make the Battle Hymn of the Republic the country's national anthem.  That movement failed, largely because southerners hated the northern song’s tone of moral triumph.

“Its lyrics a call to crush the Confederates as one would a serpent under one's heel,” Soskis said.

Over the decades, though, the serpent verses were discretely dropped and the song was embraced even in the South. New lyrics would be written for new causes by activists who felt not only that "truth was marching on,” but that it was marching on their side.

America’s early labor movement adopted the tune. John Steinbeck’s anti-poverty novel, “The Grapes of Wrath” took its title from the song. The Battle Hymn was sung during the Civil Rights Movement. And the last words Martin Luther King, Jr. ever spoke in public were from Julia Ward Howe’s lyric.

“I’m not fearing any man!  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” King said in Memphis on April 3, 1968.   

Soskis says the song endures because, for better or worse, it speaks to America’s sense of itself as a country with a mission.

“No song captures it better than the Battle Hymn,” he said.

You May Like

Mali's Female Basketball Players Rebound After Islamist Occupation

Islamist extremists ruled northern Mali for most of 2012, imposing strict Sharia law, and now some 18 months later, the region is slowly getting back on its feet More

Video Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spat

Many Chinese-made products go unsold, for now, with numerous Vietnamese consumers still angry over recent dispute More

Koreas Mark 61st Anniversary of War Armistice

Muted observances on both sides of heavily-armed Demilitarized Zone that separates two decades-long enemies More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Students in Business for Themselvesi
X
Mike O'Sullivan
July 26, 2014 11:04 AM
They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Students in Business for Themselves

They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Not Even Monks Spared From Thailand’s Junta-Backed Morality Push

With Thailand’s military government firmly in control after May’s bloodless coup, authorities are carrying out plans they say are aimed at restoring discipline, morality and patriotism to all Thais. The measures include a crackdown on illegal gambling, education reforms to promote students’ moral development, and a new 24-hour phone hotline for citizens to report misbehaving monks. Steve Sandford reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Virtual Program Teaches Farming Skills

In a fast-changing world beset by unpredictable climate conditions, farmers cannot afford to ignore new technology. Researchers in Australia are developing an online virtual world program to share information about climate change and more sustainable farming techniques for sugar cane growers. As VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports, the idea is to create a wider support network for farmers.
Video

Video Airline Expert: Missile will Show Signature on Debris

The debris field from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is spread over a 21-kilometer radius in eastern Ukraine. It is expected to take investigators months to sort through the airplane pieces to learn about the missile that brought down the jetliner and who fired it. VOAs Carolyn Presutti explains how this work will be done.
Video

Video Treatment for Childhood Epilepsy Heats up Medical Marijuana Debate

In the United States, marijuana is classed as an illegal drug by the federal government. But nearly half the states have legalized it, to some degree. Proponents say some strains of marijuana might have exceptional health benefits, for treating pain or inflammation in chronic conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Shelley Schlender reports on a strain of medical marijuana developed in Colorado that is reputed to reduce seizures in childhood epilepsy
Video

Video Airbus Adds Metal 3D Printed Parts to New Jets

By the end of this year, European aircraft manufacturing consortium Airbus plans to deliver the first of its new, extra-wide-body passenger jets, the A350-XWB. Among other technological innovations, the new plane will also incorporate metal parts made in a 3-D printer. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video AIDS Conference Welcomes Exciting Developments in HIV Treatment, Prevention

Significant strides have been made in recent years toward the treatment and prevention of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This year, at the International AIDS Conference, the AIDS community welcomed progress on a new pill that may prevent transmission of the deadly virus. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Melbourne, Australia.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

The Hamilton Live

Acclaimed jazz saxophonist Tia Fuller has made a name for herself appearing with such high-profile artists as Beyonce, Esperanza Spalding, and Terri Lyne Carrington. Tia and her quartet performed music from her CD “Angelic Warrior” on our latest edition of "The Hamilton Live."