FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Where the Grapes of Wrath Are Stored

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.

More articles by:

Dave Marsh edits Rock & Rap Confidential, one of CounterPunch’s favorite newsletters, now available for free by emailing: rockrap@aol.com. Dave blogs at http://davemarsh.us/

Weekend Edition
April 20, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Mother of War
Andrew Levine
“How Come?” Questions
Doug Noble
A Tale of Two Atrocities: Douma and Gaza
Kenneth Surin
The Blight of Ukania
Howard Lisnoff
How James Comey Became the Strange New Hero of the Liberals
William Blum
Anti-Empire Report: Unseen Persons
Lawrence Davidson
Missiles Over Damascus
Patrick Cockburn
The Plight of the Yazidi of Afrin
Pete Dolack
Fooled again? Trump Trade Policy Elevates Corporate Power
Stan Cox
For Climate Mobilization, Look to 1960s Vietnam Before Turning to 1940s America
William Hawes
Global Weirding
Dan Glazebrook
World War is Still in the Cards
Nick Pemberton
In Defense of Cardi B: Beyond Bourgeois PC Culture
Peter Certo
There Was Nothing Humanitarian About Our Strikes on Syria
Dean Baker
China’s “Currency Devaluation Game”
Ann Garrison
Why Don’t We All Vote to Commit International Crimes?
LEJ Rachell
The Baddest Black Power Artist You Never Heard Of
Lawrence Ware
All Hell Broke Out in Oklahoma
Donny Swanson
Janus v. AFSCME: What’s It All About?
Will Podmore
Brexit and the Windrush Britons
Brian Saady
Boehner’s Marijuana Lobbying is Symptomatic of Special-Interest Problem
Julian Vigo
Google’s Delisting and Censorship of Information
Patrick Walker
Political Dynamite: Poor People’s Campaign and the Movement for a People’s Party
Rob Seimetz
We Must Stand In Solidarity With Eric Reid
Missy Comley Beattie
Remembering Barbara Bush
Wim Laven
Teaching Peace in a Time of Hate
Thomas Knapp
Freedom is Winning in the Encryption Arms Race
Mir Alikhan
There Won’t be Peace in Afghanistan Until There’s Peace in Kashmir
Robert Koehler
Playing War in Syria
Tamara Pearson
US Shootings: Gun Industry Killing More People Overseas
John Feffer
Trump’s Trade War is About Trump Not China
Morris Pearl
Why the Census Shouldn’t Ask About Citizenship
Ralph Nader
Bill Curry on the Move against Public Corruption
Josh Hoxie
Five Tax Myths Debunked
Leslie Mullin
Democratic Space in Adverse Times: Milestone at Haiti’s University of the Aristide Foundation
Louis Proyect
Syria and Neo-McCarthyism
April 19, 2018
Ramzy Baroud
Media Cover-up: Shielding Israel is a Matter of Policy
Vijay Prashad
Undermining Brazilian Democracy: the Curious Saga of Lula
Steve Fraser
Class Dismissed: Class Conflict in Red State America
John W. Whitehead
Crimes of a Monster: Your Tax Dollars at Work
Kenn Orphan
Whistling Past the Graveyard
Karl Grossman - TJ Coles
Opening Pandora’s Box: Karl Grossman on Trump and the Weaponization of Space
Colin Todhunter
Behind Theresa May’s ‘Humanitarian Hysterics’: The Ideology of Empire and Conquest
Jesse Jackson
Syrian Strikes is One More step Toward a Lawless Presidency
Michael Welton
Confronting Militarism is Early Twentieth Century Canada: the Woman’s International League for Peace and Freedom
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail