Misty fog hangs over a small river with grassy banks on either side and a tree in the left foreground

2023 Grateful 4: Their truth is marching on

Julia Ward Howe. I met her today. Not met, met as she died back in 1910. Met as in the sense of stumbled across her name and read more.

Poet, abolitionist, suffragette, she was a woman I’d very much liked to have had dinner with.

During the American Civil War, Howe heard Union soldiers belt out the marching song John Brown’s Body in Washington DC. Widely believed to have been about the abolitionist John Brown, some say it was about a Scotsman in the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia who bore the same name.

Howe, had she known it, probably fell victim to an earworm, which, incidentally is also known as sticky music or stuck song syndrome.

Anyway, the tune rattled around in her head all day and night. And then, the next morning, she had this to say:

I… awoke the next morning in the gray of the early dawn, and to my astonishment found that the wished-for lines were arranging themselves in my brain. I lay quite still until the last verse had completed itself in my thoughts, then hastily arose, saying to myself, I shall lose this if I don’t write it down immediately. I… began to scrawl the lines almost without looking…. Having completed this, I lay down again and fell asleep, but not before feeling that something of importance had happened to me.

She sold her poem to the Atlantic Monthly for $5.

What fascinates me about this song is that the tune was put on paper by a Southerner, William Steffe:

William Steffe (1830–-1890) was a South-Carolina born Philadelphia bookeeper and insurance agent who is credited with collecting and editing the musical tune for a camp-meeting song with the traditional “Glory Hallelujah” refrain, in about 1856. It opened with “Say, brothers, will you meet us / on Canaan’s happy shore?”

Between the two of them, they produced a resounding piece of work.

As I write, I wonder if I’ll offend anyone. It’s certainly not my intention to do so. I’m not well up on my American history. I don’t know if this song is no longer PC. I’m remembering the recent controversy over Zombie by the Cranberries and Celtic Symphony by the Wolfe Tones. But as former Irish Rugby International Shane Byrne said on the telly shortly afterwards – sometimes a tune is just a good tune.

When did we get this way – offences waiting to be taken?

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord … I wonder how many times I’ll be singing that today.

Back when we were kids, my neighbour across the road who was a music teacher in the local boys’ college taught me to sing John Brown’s Body and to give it welly. Given that I haven’t a note in my head, that was some achievement, one he never felt the need to repeat.

When I hear this song, I find myself standing up, almost to attention and pausing, thinking of all the people who have died in recent years on our road – in just five houses. Mervyn Black. Michael Weedle. Pat Given. Máire Weedle. Jim Murphy. Brendan Herbert. End of an era stuff. Their truth is marching on.

4 responses

    1. The U.S. national anthem is also difficult to sing, the Battle Hymn is much more stirring. Listening to a a group of non professionals mangle the Star Spangled Banner can be quite painful, not to mention that if you only hear it as a precursor to a game you think that the last stanza is a cheer followed by “Play Ball”

      1. You mean the last line isn’t play ball 🙂 It’s so easy to mangle any national anthem, as the recent Rugby World Cup showed us. Cringeworthy stuff. Just read the lyrics, Andy, and don’t envy any non-native-English speakers trying to learn that one off.

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