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A Biography of the Song that Marches On

by Benjamin Soskis ; John Stauffer

Pub Date: June 3rd, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-19-983743-4
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

The history of the hymn that began as a revival hymn in 1807, morphed into a soldiers’ marching song and served to replace sorrow with resolve as it did after 9/11.   

Stauffer (English and American Literature; African-American Studies/Harvard Univ.; Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, 2008, etc.) and Soskis (Nonprofit Management, Philanthropy and Policy/George Mason Univ.) trace the song’s beginnings as “Say Brothers, Will You Meet us” to “John Brown’s Body” and Julia Ward Howe’s version written in 1861. The song has been used to reflect national ideals, borrowing images from the Bible as a call to action whenever war reared its ugly head. The Howe version became a symbol of the reunification of the North and South, at least in the North. The hymn highly offended Confederates, as it reminded them of the words of the "John Brown’s Body" version sung by Union soldiers, which swore to hang “Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree.” Various versions with new or adjusted lyrics have appeared, modifying the song’s imperialistic bent and millennial aspersions. It has been used to express fears, feuds, righteousness and a providentially blessed nation in times of crisis, and it invariably rouses the masses. This powerful song has been called into action by such diverse causes as labor movements, Spanish-American War anti-imperialists, Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party, Billy Sunday, Billy Graham and leaders of the civil rights movement. Unfortunately, the lengthy biographies of the various adapters of the lyrics are superfluous and, quite frankly, boring.

The hymn’s growth and adaptation provides a decent story, but not a 300-page one; 100 would have been more than sufficient.