Yesterday’s Boston Globe features an article by R. Blakeslee Gilpin, author of the forthcoming John Brown Still Lives!: America’s Long Reckoning with Violence, Equality, and Change. Gilpin explains how what we now know as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” originated as “John Brown’s Body” among soldiers in Boston. John Brown, the subject of Gilpin’s book, was a radical abolitionist–he stood for a noble cause, but with violent action. Though the lyrics changed when it became the “Battle Hymn,” the roots of the song have immortalized Brown’s life. An excerpt from the article:
On May 12, 1861, a flag-raising ceremony was held at Fort Warren, an Army post on George’s Island in Boston Harbor. The growing ranks of the Twelfth Massachusetts surprised inductees with the first performance of a new song.
The “John Brown Song,” as the soldiers called it, borrowed the tune of a popular Methodist hymn – a melody you probably know today as “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” with its famous chorus of “Glory, glory, hallelujah.” But in May of 1861, Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn” lyrics still lay six months in the future. “John Brown’s Body lies a-moulderin’ in the grave,” the Massachusetts soldiers sang. “His soul is marching on!”
The song became a hit. Two months later, Boston newspapers reported troops singing the tune in the city. By the time the lyrics were printed by a local music publisher, the company announced that “one can hardly walk on the streets for five minutes without hearing it whistled or hummed.”
Why did John Brown, a violent abolitionist revolutionary hanged for treason in Virginia, inspire a stirring song first heard, of all places, on an island in Boston Harbor? The answer reveals something about the complexity of the North’s beliefs about why they were fighting the Civil War, and the surprisingly wide range of causes that Brown – a New Englander turned antislavery zealot – came to represent in the fractured America of the time.
You can read the rest of the article at the Globe. John Brown Still Lives! is available for pre-order now. Gilpin is a fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.