One Song Glory

Jul 4, 2018
Originally published on September 7, 2018 1:50 pm

This week, NPR inaugurates a new series called American Anthem, exploring songs that tap into the collective emotions of listeners and performers around an issue or belief. Find more stories at NPR.org/anthem.


There's an episode of The Johnny Cash Show from 1969 where the man himself makes a little speech with a pretty big error. "Here's a song that was reportedly sung by both sides in the Civil War," Cash says, guitar in hand, to kick off a performance of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

The real history on that point is clear: Julia Ward Howe wrote the song as a pro-Union, anti-slavery anthem. But then Cash goes on to say, " .... which proves to me that a song can belong to all of us." And about that, he's right.

I should go easy on Cash for flubbing the history; I had it wrong, too. I didn't even know the "Battle Hymn" had ties to the Civil War up until recently, because I — and maybe you, if you grew up with a similar flavor of Christianity — only sang it in church. Little did I know the song, with its refrain of "Glory, glory, hallelujah," had been used to root for college football teams, or as an anthem for labor unions. Evangelist Billy Graham, who helped popularize the song among Christians, even took it to the Russian army chorus in 1992.

"It's a good march," says Sparky Rucker. A folk singer and historian who performs a show of Civil War music with his wife, Rucker says the "Battle Hymn" rallies with its rhythm: "It's just the right cadence to march along, if you're marching at a picket line or marching down the street carrying signs. ... It really gets your blood going [so] that you can slay dragons."

Dragons are relative, however. Anita Bryant, the singer and conservative activist, used to perform the song at anti-gay rallies. During the 1964 presidential race, Republican nominee Barry Goldwater had to disown a campaign film that posed the election as a choice between two Americas — an "ideal" America, where the tune of the "Battle Hymn" scored images of the founders and the Constitution, and a "nightmare" America, featuring black people protesting and kids dancing to rock music.

On the flipside, the day before he was killed in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech, which he ended by quoting the song's first line: "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." His home church, Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist, took up the song after his death as an anthem to him and the civil rights movement.

"How people relate to patriotism is kind of how they come into the 'Battle Hymn,' " says professor Brigitta Johnson, an ethnomusicologist at the University of South Carolina who teaches in the schools of Music and African-American Studies. "For example, your white nationalists digging deep into heavy patriotism messages — they bring up things like 'The Star-Spangled Banner' and the 'Battle Hymn' and it becomes their battle cry, just as easily as it could become the battle cry for Ebenezer in Atlanta."

In other words, Johnson says, this anthem is all about what you bring to it. And in fact, that flexibility is part of its design.

A quick bit of history: It's the middle of the Civil War. Union soldiers are sitting around a campfire, goofing off, singing songs — and they're ribbing on this one guy. "One of the members of the singing group is a Scottish immigrant named John Brown," Harvard professor John Stauffer says.

To be clear, he's not talking about the famous abolitionist, who was executed before the war even began; this John Brown was just a regular soldier. Stauffer, who co-authored the book The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song that Marches On, says the soldiers were making up new lyrics to the tune of an old hymn, "Say Brothers, Will You Meet Us."

"So when they start making up songs to pass the time, comrades needle him and say, 'You can't be John Brown — John Brown's dead.' And then another soldier would add, 'His body's moulderin' in the grave,' " Stauffer explains. Though their impromptu rewrite was inspired by a regular soldier, the ghost of the abolitionist loomed large — and a marching song called "John Brown's Body" was born.

"John Brown's Body" became super-popular among Union soldiers for a few reasons. For one, the simplicity of the lyrics and melody made it easy to sing, and to remember. More importantly, it glorified the righteous fight against slavery. African-American units picked up the melody and added their own spin: "We're done with hoeing cotton, we're done with hoeing corn / We're colored Yankee soldiers just as sure as you were born."

A few years later, a well-to-do, highly educated poet from New York named Julia Ward Howe came to Washington, D.C. with her minister to visit Union troops. As they did so, Confederates attacked — but the Union soldiers defended, and impressed Howe. Her minister, Stauffer says, pushed her to rewrite the song they'd been singing — "rewrite it and elevate it. Make that song richer for a kind of educated audience."

Stauffer says Howe wasn't necessarily looking to write an anthem; she was keen to make the kind of capital-A art that would put her in the ranks of the more respected authors of her time. "Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, Thoreau — part of the way they were understood as great writers was their use of symbolism," he says. For Howe's version of the song, she ditched many of the lines that had been crowdsourced among the troops — such as "Let's hang Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree."

Reborn as "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," Howe's version is the one we know best today. But it's worth noting that the troops' contributions were what made the song so popular in the first place — that, and the stirring melody of the original hymn.

Sparky Rucker says that when he performs the black Union soldiers' version of the song — even in the South, where, in his words, "the wounds of the Civil War are still fresh" — everyone sings along: "Even my un-Reconstructed Southerners in the audience will sing along with me — 'cause we've also sung some of their songs."

Rucker says his audiences also sing the Howe version, which eventually won — getting published by The Atlantic in 1862 and becoming canonized. And while it does transcend centuries and cultures, Birgitta Johnson is quick to point out that the "Battle Hymn" is, at the end of the day, a war song.

"The kumbaya moment will not be happening across the aisles because of this song," she says, "because it's really about supporting whatever your perspective is — about freedom or liberation, and having God as the person who's ordaining what we're doing. And 'glory, hallelujah' about that."

As Johnny Cash said in 1969, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" is an anthem that belongs to everybody. But what really matters is what they're singing it for.

Editor Daoud Tyler-Ameen contributed to the digital version of this story.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Today, we're starting a new series called American Anthem. We're exploring songs that tap into the collective emotions that listeners and performers have around an issue or a belief.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And we start with a big one, a big anthem - the "Battle Hymn Of The Republic." Now, there's an episode of a "Johnny Cash Show" from 1969 where the man is about to sing that song, but before he starts, he makes little speech with a pretty big error.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JOHNNY CASH SHOW")

JOHNNY CASH: Here's a song that was reportedly sung by both sides in the Civil War.

KING: The history is clear. The "Battle Hymn" was first written by Julia Ward Howe as a pro-Union, anti-slavery song, but then Cash makes this point.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JOHNNY CASH SHOW")

CASH: Which proves one thing to me - that a song can belong to all of us.

KING: And about that, he's right.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JOHNNY CASH SHOW")

CASH: (Singing) Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

INSKEEP: NPR's Andrew Limbong guides us through one of America's most enduring anthems.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: I should go easy on Johnny Cash for flubbing the history of the "Battle Hymn Of The Republic." I had it wrong, too. I didn't even know the song had ties to the Civil War up until embarrassingly recently because I, and maybe you if you grew up with a similar flavor of Christianity, only sang it at church.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) His truth is marching on.

LIMBONG: Little did I know, the song was being used to root for college football teams - Go Georgia...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC")

LIMBONG: ...As an anthem for labor unions.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Solidarity forever.

LIMBONG: Evangelist Billy Graham, who helped popularize the song among Christians, even took it to the Russian army chorus in 1992.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC")

ALEXANDROV ENSEMBLE: (Singing) His truth is marching on.

SPARKY RUCKER: It's a good march. I mean, it's just the right cadence to march along if you're marching a picket line or marching down the street carrying signs.

LIMBONG: That's Sparky Rucker, a folk singer and Civil War historian who performs a show of Civil War music called "Blue & Gray In Black & White" with his wife, Rhonda.

RUCKER: It sets your heart to (panting) and it really gets your blood going that you can slay dragons.

LIMBONG: Dragons are relative, though. Anita Bryant used to sing the song at anti-gay rallies, and it's also been used to justify racism. On the flip side, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous "Mountaintop" speech the day before he was killed in 1968. And it ends like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

BIRGITTA JOHNSON: How people relate to patriotism is kind of how they come into the "Battle Hymn."

LIMBONG: That's Professor Birgitta Johnson, an ethnomusicologist at the University of South Carolina who teaches in the schools of music and African-American studies. After Martin Luther King Jr. died, she says his home church, Ebenezer Baptist, made the song about him and his truth of the civil rights movement. Johnson says this anthem is all about what you bring to it.

JOHNSON: For example, when you see your white nationalist kind of digging deep into their heavy patriotism messages, they bring up things like "The Star-Spangled Banner" and the "Battle Hymn," and it becomes their battle cry just as easy as it can become the battle cry for Ebenezer in Atlanta.

LIMBONG: And that flexibility is by design.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPARKY AND RHONDA RUCKER SONG, "GLORY HALLELUJAH SUITE: SAY BROTHERS WILL YOU MEET US/GLORY! GLORY! HALLELUJAH/BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC/MARCHING SONG OF THE 1ST ARKANSAS")

LIMBONG: Quick history - it's the middle of the Civil War. Union soldiers are sitting around a campfire, goofing off, singing songs, and they're ribbing on this one guy.

JOHN STAUFFER: One of the members of the singing group is a Scottish immigrant named John Brown.

LIMBONG: Not that John Brown, says Harvard professor John Stauffer. We're not talking about the famous abolitionist, just a regular soldier. Stauffer is the co-author of the book "The Battle Hymn Of The Republic: A Biography Of The Song That Marches On." He says the soldiers were making up lyrics to the tune of an old hymn, to "Say Brothers, Will You Meet Us."

STAUFFER: So when they start making up songs to pass the time, comrades needle him and say, you can't be John Brown. John Brown's dead. And then another soldier would add, but his body's mouldering in the grave.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLORY HALLELUJAH SUITE: SAY BROTHERS WILL YOU MEET US / GLORY! GLORY! HALLELUJAH! / BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC / MARCHING SONG OF THE 1ST ARKANSAS")

RUCKER: (Singing) John Brown's body lies a moulderin' in the grave.

LIMBONG: So even though it's about a regular soldier, the ghost of the abolitionist looms large, and a song called "John Brown's Body" is born. It becomes super popular among Union soldiers for a few reasons. It's easy to sing. The melody is simple. The lyrics are easy to remember. And most importantly, it glorified the righteous fight against slavery.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLORY HALLELUJAH SUITE: SAY BROTHERS WILL YOU MEET US / GLORY! GLORY! HALLELUJAH! / BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC / MARCHING SONG OF THE 1ST ARKANSAS")

RUCKER: (Singing) The stars of heaven, they are looking kindly down on the grave of old John Brown.

LIMBONG: A couple years later, a well-to-do, highly educated poet from York named Julia Ward Howe comes to Washington, D.C., with her minister to visit Union troops.

STAUFFER: As they do so, Confederates attack.

LIMBONG: But the Union troops defend and impress Howe. Her minister pushes her to rewrite "John Brown's Body."

STAUFFER: Rewrite it and elevate it for a kind of educated audience.

LIMBONG: John Stauffer says Julia Ward Howe was not interested in creating an anthem. She wanted to make capital-A art with metaphor and symbolism so she could join the ranks of the better-known writers of her time.

STAUFFER: Symbolism was seen by Hawthorne or Melville, Thoreau, that part of the way in which they were understood as great writers was their use of symbolism.

LIMBONG: So Howe ditched many of the crowdsourced lyrics of "John Brown's Body" like let's hang Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree. But that crowdsourcing is what made the song so popular in the first place - that and the stirring melody of the original hymn. Birgitta Johnson says African-American units picked up the melody as their anthem.

JOHNSON: And you also had this "Marching Song of First Arkansas" being sung by black Union soldiers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLORY HALLELUJAH SUITE: SAY BROTHERS WILL YOU MEET US / GLORY! GLORY! HALLELUJAH! / BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC / MARCHING SONG OF THE 1ST ARKANSAS")

RUCKER: (Singing) We mean to show Jeff Davis how the African can fight as we go marching on.

We're done with hoeing cotton. We're done with hoeing corn. We're colored Yankee soldiers now sure as you're born

LIMBONG: That's folk singer Sparky Rucker, again, whose versions of these songs we've been hearing. He says that when he sings the black Union soldiers' version of the song, even in the South where in his words the wounds of the Civil War are still fresh, everyone sings along.

RUCKER: Even a lot of my unreconstructed Southerners (laughter) in the audience will sing along with me because we've also sung some of their songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLORY HALLELUJAH SUITE: SAY BROTHERS WILL YOU MEET US / GLORY! GLORY! HALLELUJAH! / BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC / MARCHING SONG OF THE 1ST ARKANSAS")

RUCKER: (Singing) Singing glory, glory, hallelujah.

LIMBONG: Rucker says everyone also sings the Julia Ward Howe version, which eventually won, getting published by The Atlantic magazine in 1862 and becoming canonized. And while it does transcend centuries and cultures, Birgitta Johnson is quick to point out that it is, at the end of the day, a war song.

JOHNSON: So the kumbaya moment will not be happening across the aisles because of this song because it's really about supporting whatever your perspective is on freedom or liberation and having God as the person who's ordaining what we're doing. And glory, hallelujah, about that.

LIMBONG: The song does belong to everyone, as Johnny Cash said in 1969. But what really matters is why they're singing it. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JOHNNY CASH SHOW")

CASH: (Singing) His truth is marching on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.