A man who is a better writer than I, bent his thoughts and efforts to giving us all a greater understanding of the great, the timeless “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Like everything that Mark Steyn writes, it’s worth reading, if only for the outstanding writing. The man is a master of the English language, and a wonderful thinker. The combination makes this Canadian an American treasure. Sometimes, I guess, it requires someone from somewhere else to tell those of us from here, just how historically, stupendously, spectacularly, astonishingly, against-all-odds, unprecedentedly great here is.
Here are some snippets:
Memorial Day in America – or, if you’re a real old-timer, Decoration Day, a day for decorating the graves of the Civil War dead. The songs many of those soldiers marched to are still known today – “The Yellow Rose Of Texas”, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”, “Dixie”. But this one belongs in a category all its own:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored…
It’s really good to have some of this gloriously beautiful song’s back story, and the context in which it was composed!
Want more? Read on:
At the time, Dr Samuel Howe was working with the Sanitary Commission of the Department of War, and one fall day he and Mrs Howe were taken to a camp a few miles from Washington for a review of General McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. That day, for the first time in her life, Julia Ward Howe heard soldiers singing:
John Brown’s body lies a-mould’ring in the grave
John Brown’s body lies a-mould’ring in the grave…
Ah, yes. The famous song about the famous abolitionist hanged in 1859 in Charlestown, Virginia before a crowd including Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson and John Wilkes Booth.
Well, no, not exactly. “By a strange quirk of history,” wrote Irwin Silber, the great musicologist of Civil War folk songs, “‘John Brown’s Body’ was not composed originally about the fiery Abolitionist at all. The namesake for the song, it turns out, was Sergeant John Brown, a Scotsman, a member of the Second Battalion, Boston Light Infantry Volunteer Militia.” This group enlisted with the Twelfth Massachusetts Regiment and formed a glee club at Fort Warren in Boston. Brown was second tenor, and the subject of a lot of good-natured joshing, including a song about him mould’ring in his grave, which at that time had just one verse, plus chorus:
Glory, glory, hallelujah
Glory, glory, hallelujah…
I had no idea! You learn something new just about every time you read Steyn.
Here’s a bit more:
When the lads from the Boston Light Infantry cooked up their John Brown song, they used an old Methodist camp-meeting tune, “Brothers, Will You Meet Us?” So where did that come from? Well, back in the 1850s, a Sunday school composer, William Steffe of Richmond, Virginia, was asked to go and lead the singing at a Georgia camp meeting. When he got there, he found there were no song books and so improvised some words to one of those tunes that – like most of the others in those pre-copyright days – was just sorta floating in the ether. Steffe’s lyric, like the original John Brown song, had one verse – “Say, brothers, will you meet us?” – and one chorus: “Glory, glory, hallelujah…”
And somehow this combination – an improvised camp-meeting chorus with an in-joke verse about a Boston Scotsman – became the most popular marching song of the Union forces, the one bellowed out as Sherman’s men marched through Georgia in 1864. According to William Hubbard’s History Of American Music:
Lieutenant Chandler, in writing of Sherman’s March to the Sea, tells that when the troops were halted at Shady Dale, Georgia, the regimental band played ‘John Brown’s Body’, whereupon a number of Negro girls coming from houses supposed to have been deserted, formed a circle around the band, and in a solemn and dignified manner danced to the tune. The Negro girls, with faces grave and demeanor characteristic of having performed a ceremony of religious tenor, retired to their cabins. It was learned from the older Negroes that this air, without any particular words to it, had long been known among them as the ‘wedding tune’. They considered it a sort of voodoo air, which held within its strains a mysterious hold upon the young colored women, who had been taught that unless they danced when they heard it played they would be doomed to a life of spinsterhood.
There’s a lot more about this gloriously gorgeous, and history-drenched song, and I heartily recommend the reading.
As a bit of a teaser: Steyn resolves the “live-die” conundrum. That is: the brilliant phrase: “As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free.”
Wellllll…that’s not how it was really written. However, this is the 21st Century, and while we celebrate death — abortion, euthanasia etc. all around us — our own death, in a cause larger than we, in an endeavor ennobled by our “last full measure of devotion,” is just not acceptable. Hence, we changed the lyrics from “let us die to make men free,” to “let us live to make men free.”
Steyn, to his everlasting credit, ignores the perversion of the original and gives us only the authentic.
After you read the Mark Steyn column, I heartily recommend listening.
Here, for example: The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Go ahead, listen. I dare you not to get a lump in your throat. At about 2:40 or so, I dare you to pretend that you didn’t have shivers up and down your spine. If you’re not stirred, then you’re not stirrable.
Want something a tad more traditional? Here’s a great rendition too. Best Version of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” EVER! Mormon Tabernacle Choir + Lyrics. Yep. It’s pretty darned good!
After all that wonderful listening, do be sure to re-read Mark Steyn’s post. Trust me, you won’t regret it.