The government’s choice of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to close the National Prayer Service, the first Friday after the WTC attack, shocked me. I was more shocked when it closed the peace-mongers’ mass we attended that Sunday.
Could I have been the only one who heard that stirring melody and sang in my heart,
John Brown’s body lies a-molderin’ in the grave But his soul goes marching on?
“Don’t they know who John Brown was?” I asked a friend. “He was a terrorist–maybe our first terrorist.”.
John Brown took rich slaveowners as hostages, he planned a military action solely to disrupt civilian business-as-usual practices in the slave society, many people including his own children dying as a result. In Kansas, he committed brazen acts of murder–he’d have said war–against slavers. Although the Civil War didn’t break out until 1861, it was Brown’s 1859 attack on Harper’s Ferry that presaged the kind of war it would be. That’s why the Union soldiers took as their anthem a song whose first verse was “John Brown’s body” and which came to its point with “John Brown died that the slaves might be free.” No matter what other pretexts the historians and politicians come up with, the soldiers knew what they were fighting for, and they knew where it started, too.
Soldiers set those words to a camp meeting song with the “Glory, glory hallelujah” chorus. When Julia Ward Howe, a respectable abolitionist, heard it at a Union Army camp in Virginia a few months after the war officially began, the lyrics included verses like “They will hang Jeff Davis to a sour apple tree.” The camp chaplain suggested, according to the story currently at The Atlantic magazine website, that Howe might write “new verses more appropriate to the Civil War effort.” In fact, the suggestion must have been quite the opposite–come up with something less bloody and committed to the war’s most radical agenda: overturning the slaveocracy and freedom for all black people.
Howe’s verses, published in The Atlantic in February 1862, became the official version. So, 130 years later, the most powerful people in our nation proclaim:
He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat.
This after having spent the previous week condemning religious fanatics. (John Brown was a religious fanatic who believed slavery was a sin worse than murder.)
Singing the “Battle Hymn” at the prayer service reflected the complete ignorance of context typical at all levels of a society where knowing history ranks as an oddity if not an impediment. I’ve since decided it was far better to be reminded that American history contains its own terrorists than to be subjected to “God Bless America”‘s gruesome rendition of Manifest Destiny, ramrodded into our brains on the hour whenever we’re in earshot of a radio.
The first time “God Bless America” became a hit, around 1940, Woody Guthrie grew annoyed at the sanctimonious jingoism and wrote an answer song “God Blessed America for Me.” Soon, though, he came up with a better chorus and title: “This land is your land.” He wrote some great verses, too, and the best is the last:
One sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple By the Relief Office I saw my people As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering If this land was made for you and me.
Nobody’s singing that one at prayer services, not while greed remains good, the unemployment rate climbs back to double digits and asking questions is grounds for suspicion.
But if, having blasphemed against the orgiastic patriotism of my own day, I am entitled to a prayer here, let it be that some other songwriter becomes equally inspired and that that inspiration arrives soon. CP
Dave Marsh is the editor of Rock and Rap Confidential.