Glory, Glory, Fallujah!

There was a great segment by Sarah Vowell on last Satuday’s This America Life about the bizarre evolution of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Who knew that a song we use to mourn the 9/11 victims and rally the troops in the war on terror was originally written to commemorate the first American terrorist?

I’m referring to John Brown, the abolitionist who, in the years before the civil war, captured pro-slavery advocates and hacked them to death. After leading an attack on an armory in 1859, you may recall, Brown was subsequently hanged as a terrorist, and thus made into a kind of martyr for the abolitionist cause. (Thoreau said he gave people contemplating suicide something to live for.)

At the same time, in Bostons Fort Warren, there was a militiaman also named John Brown, and when word got to his regiment that “John Brown has died,” the soldiers liked to joke, “yeah, but he still goes marching around.” Fort Warren had a singing quartet, and they turned the John Brown joke into a lyric, then set it to a popular Methodist hymn: “John Brown’s body lies a molderin’ in the grave, his soul goes marching on!” Thus it was that the “Glory, glory hallelujah!” melody was adopted into a kind of mock-tribute to a madman. Or, as Vowell puts it, “The song was a joke, the kind of ribbing that a soldier in today’s army might get if he had the misfortune of being named Uday Hussein.”

After joke-butt John Brown died a couple years later, in the Civil War, his Boston comrades stopped singing the song. But by then it was too late; everyone else in the Union army knew the catchy tune. It was soon re-written by Julia Ward Howe (of Mother’s Day fame) as a motivational ditty, published by The Atlantic Monthly, and, a century later, turned into everything from a Grammy winner to a cheer for soccer hooligans.

Vowell tracks the song’s peculiar origins and rewrites in her hilarious monologue, which you really have to hear (along with the musical accompaniment) to get the full effect. For all you Penn grads out there, there’s an explanation of how our beloved “Hang Jeff Davis” (you know, the random one sung after football touchdowns) was once the strangest stanza in the song. Her segment is third in the show, I think, and you can listen to the RealAudio here.