Expert's Insights on "John Brown's Body" (and My "Controversial" Conclusions)
According to Tony Reid, a reporter for the Herald & Review of Decatur, Ill., a lecture was given recently on famous Civil War tunes. The presenter was Christian McWhirter, Ph.D., the assistant editor of the Abraham Lincoln Papers project, in Springfield, Ill. McWhirter's presentation, entitled, "Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War," did his doctoral dissertation on Civil War music.
Besides "Dixie," McWhirter discussed “John Brown's Body,” a song with "its roots in a Union Army song poking fun at a Scottish soldier called John Brown." Its application to Brown the abolitionist, according to this report, amounted to "a joking play on words." Whether or not McWhirter drew this conclusion, or if this is really the conclusion of the journalist, it is not exactly correct. It is true, of course, that the original John Brown song was a spoof, a humorous soldiers' song that clearly has not an ounce of political or social intent. But the application of the song to the abolitionist was hardly a matter of humor, but rather a meaningful and spontaneous appropriation that indicated the spirit of the times. Almost in an instant, as it were, the original nature of the song was lost, and the chorus, "John Brown's body lies a moldering in the grave" became the northern battle hymn--more appropriately, the antislavery battle hymn of the Civil War.
McWhirter pointed out how abolitionist Julia Ward Howe heard a group of soldiers singing the tune and "decided it was time to take the lyrics up-market." But he interestingly points out that her stylized make-over, the famous "Battle Hymn of the Republic," did not actually become famous until well after the Civil War. “[N]obody was very interested in this song during the Civil War,” said McWhirter, and despite his depth of research, the scholar says he has found almost no evidence that Union soldiers ever sang this song until after the war.
The latter point is of great interest. McWhirter's conclusion that the Ward Howe makeover didn't quite "take" with the soldiers during the war is important to me, as it underscores my argument made elsewhere--that rather than a work of inspired brilliance, the writing of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" was a well-intended abolitionist scheme to manipulate the zeitgeist and bring it in line with their nonviolent, institutionalized Unitarian New England sensibilities. Ward Howe, following the admonition of James Freeman Clarke, wanted to "improve" history by taking control of its raw energy and processing it in a manner more palatable to their perspective.
Not only did the abolitionist establishment want a song that had the dignity of a hymn, but they did not want to celebrate a man who used "violence" despite their sympathies for him. I'm not suggesting Ward Howe disliked Brown--far from it, considering her husband was one of Brown's supporters. But it is clear that the pacifist abolitionist elite were not entirely sure what to do with Brown despite their appreciation for him as the default martyr of the antislavery cause. After his death, however, they wanted to move beyond Brown, wanted to take back control of the antislavery movement from this wild card abolitionist. After all, John Brown had managed to steal their thunder, and to do what twenty years of Garrisonian wailing had not accomplished.
It is only fitting to find that despite the well-intended machinations of Ward Howe and her abolitionist friends, the glory of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" is only anachronistic. At the time, in the midst of the war, soldiers and enslaved people were full of "John Brown's Body," and they did not give up their strangely anointed ballad for Ward Howe's well-crafted replacement anthem. It is probably the most significant aspect of the story of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" that it did not become meaningful to the nation until a different generation had arisen--a generation that had already begun to move away from the priorities of black freedom, instead celebrating the death and rebirth of the great white union, epitomized by the glorification of their preferred martyr, Abraham Lincoln. --LD
See Tony Reid, "Civil war tunes' twists and turns noted." Herald & Review (3 Aug. 2015)