Judy Garland Performing "Battle Hymn For The Republic"
Pete Seeger Performing "Battle Hymn For The Republic"
Next year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. There is no song that more vividly evokes that conflict than "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
Julia Ward Howe wrote the famous words "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord" in 1861. Since then, the song's become a kind of second national anthem.
Dominic Tierney, an assistant professor of political science at Swarthmore College, talks about the history of the song -- the Elvis and Judy Garland versions, for example -- in the new issue of The Atlantic, which is where the poem was originally published in 1862.
"It was about the Union cause," Tierney tells Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "But it was also about much more deeper and profound themes than that."
The tune began as "Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us," a campfire spiritual from the 1850s that, as Tierney puts it, "went viral." The song was quickly retooled as ''John Brown's Body.''
Howe, an abolitionist and poet from Boston, came across the tune during a visit to Washington, D.C., in 1861. She traveled with a party who enjoyed singing Union songs, including "John Brown's Body." One reverend traveling with the group liked the tune, but not the lyrics, which included lines like "We'll hang Old Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree."
"That night, Howe went to sleep," Tierney says. "When she woke the next morning, the lines of a poem began to form themselves in her mind. So she jumped out of bed and scribbled them down, and then fell back asleep."
The Atlantic Monthly ended up paying her $5 for the poem, publishing it in 1862 with the title "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
"It's quite clearly about the Civil War," Tierney says. "But it's also a timeless song that speaks much more broadly to great themes in the American soul."
"The Battle Hymn" was so well-received that other songs adopted its tune, including "Solidarity Forever." Poet and Union organizer Ralph Chaplin wrote the Union anthem in 1915, scribbling stanzas on his living room rug, just as Howe had half a century earlier.
"He wanted a song that was full of revolutionary fervor and a chorus that was singing and defiant," Tierney says. "Even today, with the union movement struggling in America, the song can still be heard on picket lines and in union halls."
"The Battle Hymn" is frequently associated with death in America. Tierney points out that the last words spoken in public by Martin Lither King Jr. came from the hymn. It was also the last song played at Bobby Kennedy's requiem Mass, and was used prominently following the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
"'The Battle Hymn' is a thread woven into the national public," he says. "Its words are kind of carved into the narrative arc of the American story. We instinctively reach for it in times of trauma."
Tierney adds that the song has a particular resonance in wartime, beginning as the great rallying cry of the Northern cause in the Civil War and enduring on long after the South's surrender in 1865.
"We tend to see war as a righteous quest, to smite tyrants and spread freedom," Tierney says. "That was true in the Civil War, and it was also true more recently in Iraq. And the hymn's language of warfare is really echoed down the decades as Americans have gone into battle."
Tierney expects the hymn to continue to endure the test of time, even if altered into electronic versions more suitable for a dance club than a battlefield.
"I think [Howe] would be delighted that her idea has resonated down the decades, even if mutated and gone viral," he says.