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Edited by Annie J. Randall Music, Power, and Politics


A Censorship of Forgetting: Origins and Origin Myths of “Battle Hymn of the Republic”

Annie J. Randall

Chapter Excerpt

Immediately following the events of September 11, 2001, the song “God Bless America” was everywhere.1 Everyone, it seemed, was singing it—from senators on the capitol steps to traders at the New York Stock Exchange to ordinary citizens who kept candlelight vigils outside the White House. Other patriotic standards dominated the airwaves; we heard nonstop over radio, television, and the Internet “Amber Waves of Grain,” “America,” and of course, “The Star Spangled Banner.” For a televised memorial moderated by Oprah Winfrey at Yankee Stadium days after September 11, “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was also performed.2 The promise of “Battle Hymn’s” avenging Christ figure, to loose “the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword” and to “crush the serpent with his heel,” seemed particularly suited to the moment.

The irony seemed overwhelming: the 1862 song that we were singing in response to a terrorist attack was itself, in an earlier version, a celebration of a terrorist (see figs. 1.1 and 1.2). The “John Brown Song” commemorated the radical abolitionist Brown’s bloodiest act—the 1859 armed takeover of a military installation at Harpers Ferry,Virginia—by which Brown intended to spark a massive revolt among millions of slaves throughout the South (see fig. 1.3).3 Hoping to extract more than irony from this unusual moment, I began to think about “Battle Hymn’s” well-known origin myth: a narrative that frames author Julia Ward Howe’s moment of poetic inspiration as an expression of Northern resolve to wage civil war to preserve the union. I thought also about “The John Brown Song” (hereafter called “John Brown’s Body”) and its less well known origins as a fundamentalist camp meeting hymn of the 1850s, “Say Brothers Will You Meet Us.”4 Multiple authors, most of them anonymous, borrowed this tune, gave it new texts, and used it to hail Brown’s terrorist war to abolish the centuries-long practice of slavery in America.5 Would we have sung “Battle Hymn” in response to September 11, or could we have sung it so innocently had its origins in American terrorism and religious fundamentalism not been sanitized by its origin myth? Surely, it was the myth,with its simple message of a divinely ordained national mission in which good triumphed over evil and God repulsed the devil, that made the vengeful song seem appropriate. I take Roland Barthes’ ideas on the function of myth as a starting point for this discussion of “Battle Hymn’s” origins and its origin myth:

Myth deprives the object of which it speaks of all History.  In it, History evaporates.  It is a kind of ideal servant: it prepares all things, brings them, lays them out, the master arrives, it silently disappears: all that is left for one to do is to enjoy this beautiful object without wondering where it comes from….[T]his felicitous figure…removes from sight…all soiling traces of origin.6

Following Barthes, my questions in this chapter concern “Battle Hymn’s” “soiling traces.” Who has identified them as such? Why has the ideal servant removed them? Who is the master? We observe the servant in action at the time of “Battle Hymn’s” publication in 1862 and earlier during the 1861 surge in its predecessor’s popularity. Working back to the prewar source of both songs, “Say Brothers, Will You Meet Us,” we glimpse him one final time.  In tracking the servant’s activities I hope to show the means by which “Battle Hymn’s” myth fosters a kind of civic amnesia, or a censorship of forgetting, that prevents critical engagement with themes of radicalism and religious fundamentalism in United States history.7

    * [Footnotes omitted in this excerpt. Please see full book.]


  • Audio: "Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us." Sung by members of Bucknell University’s male a cappella singing group. Recorded in April, 2002.

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