The Battle Hymn of The Republic, like many old songs that sprung during the Civil War of America, started out as a tune sung by soldiers as they marched. The original song went by the names of Say, Brother, Will You Meet Me and Canaan’s Happy Shore. The original tune was composed by William Steffe back in 1856, just a few five years before the break of the Civil War. The song spread all across the United States and became one of the most widely sung songs around campfires and during marches. The change that turned this song into the Battle Hymn of the Republic occurred during the early years of the war and most of the lyrical shifts were brought about by the Union’s intention to abolish slavery across the nation of the United States.
How and Why the Song Changed and Where?
One Thomas Bishop, who was a militia member of Massachusetts, compiled several marching songs and the famous Canaan’s Happy Shore became the marching song of his particular unit. It was during this time that the song shifted in its lyrical focus and became more adamant about portraying John Brown. This version of the song is known as John Brown’s Body. Brown was an active abolitionist who attempted several riots to stop slavery. From this point of view the song became a marching song for the Union and became a symbolic reference to their standpoint to rid the nation of slavery for good.
When the unit was dispatched to Kentucky and then gathered for troop reviews at Virginia, musical lyricist Julia Ward Howe heard the tune and was then requested by a reverend known was James Clarke to write new lyrics for the tune. Julia and her husband, Samuel Gridley, were avid supporters of John Brown and were active members of the Union. Samuel was a scholar and teacher of the blind. She took the task given upon her and from her the modern lyrics of the song were born.
So Who Wrote the Final Version of the Song?
Julia first began writing down the lyrics of the Battle Hymn of The Republic during the early waking hours of November 18, 1861. She relates that she awoke very early in the dawn of morning with the lyrics formulating in her mind. She immediately got out of bed to work on writing them down before her mind faltered and forgot what she concocted in her mind.
Howe’s version of the song, now formally referred to as the Battle Hymn of The Republic, was first seen on February of 1862 when it was published on The Atlantic Monthly. It was published several times after along with John Brown’s Body, most notably for the Old Folks Concert Tunes which was released in 1874. The sixth verse of the song was not yet published during this time and until now it is hardly ever sung at all during performances. Both versions of the song carry the same chorus and the changes in lyrics are in the verses. The original lyrics of John Brown’s Body was about the actions the abolitionist did to remove slavery while the latter was about the judgment of the wicked.
The Song as It Is Today
The Battle Hymn of The Republic is still famously sung among soldiers today. The overall tone and the lyrics of the song were originally meant to link the story of the judgment that would occur at the second coming of Christ at the end of the world with the Civil War and the wicked doing of men during the time. These days it is sung as a battle hymn to encourage soldiers as they march off to war, its lyrics signifying the coming of justice to those who are wicked and evil.
The song has seen several revisions over the year. The US Paratroopers during the Second World War sang it as The Blood on the Risers or Gory Gory What a Hell of a Way to Die, while it is sung as Glory Glory as an athletic theme for the Georgia Bulldog’s. Several parodies and covers exist. It was rendered with a slight change of key in the song In the Name of God by Dream Theater. The original song was also performed by Whitney Houston back in 1991 as well as by Judy Garland in 1963 as a dedication on television to US President John F. Kennedy who was just assassinated.
For an excellent course in playing this song and other patriotic songs, click on “American Patriotic Songs”