News / Arts & Entertainment

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

"Battle Hymn of the Republic" by Mrs. Julia Ward Howe
x
"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

How to Safeguard Your Mobile Privacy

As the digital world becomes more mobile, so too do concerns about eroding privacy and increased hacking More

'Desert Dancer' Chronicles Iranian Underground Dance Troupe

Film by Richard Raymond is based on true story of Afshin Ghaffarian and his friends More

Obesity Poses Complex Problem

Professor warns of obesity’s worldwide health impact 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.
Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam Wari
X
Katherine Gypson
May 25, 2015 1:32 AM
For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.
Video

Video On Film: How Dance Defies Iran's Political Oppression

'Desert Dancer' by filmmaker Richard Raymond is based on the true story of a group of young Iranians, who form an underground dance troupe in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is the latest in a genre of films that focus on dance as a form of freedom of expression against political oppression and social injustice. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Turkey's Ruling Party Trying to Lure Voters in Opposition Stronghold

Turkey’s AK (Justice and Development) Party is seeking a fourth successive general election victory, with the goal of securing two-thirds of the seats in Parliament to rewrite the constitution and change the country's parliamentary system into a presidential one. To achieve that, the party will need to win seats in opposition strongholds like the western city of Izmir. Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video Millions Flock to Ethiopia Polls

Millions of Ethiopians cast their votes Sunday in the first national election since the 2012 death of longtime leader Meles Zenawi. Mr. Meles' party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, is almost certain of victory again. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Addis Ababa.
Video

Video Scientists Testing Space Propulsion by Light

Can the sun - the heart of our solar system - power a spacecraft to the edge of our solar system? The answer may come from a just-launched small satellite designed to test the efficiency of solar sail propulsion. Once deployed, its large sail will catch the so-called solar wind and slowly reach what scientists hope to be substantial speed. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video FIFA Trains Somali Referees

As stability returns to the once lawless nation of Somalia, the world football governing body, FIFA, is helping to rebuild the country’s sport sector by training referees as well as its young footballers. Abdulaziz Billow has more from Mogadishu.
Video

Video With US Child Obesity Rates on the Rise, Program Promotes Health Eating

In its fifth year, FoodCorps puts more than 180 young Americans into 500 schools across the United States, where they focus on teaching students about nutrition, engaging them with hands-on activities, and improving their access to healthy foods whether in the cafeteria or the greater community. Aru Pande has more.
Video

Video Virginia Neighborhood Draws People to Nostalgic Main Street

In the U.S., people used to grow up in small towns with a main street lined by family-owned shops and restaurants. Today, however, many main streets are worn down and empty because shoppers have been lured away by shopping malls. But in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia, main street is thriving. VOA’s Deborah Block reports it has a nostalgic feel with its small restaurants and unique stores.

VOA Blogs

New in Music Alley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harry Wayne Casey – “KC” of KC and the Sunshine Band – comes to VOA’s Studio 4 to talk with "Border Crossings" host Larry London and perform songs from his new album, “Feeling You! The 60s.”