Tony Vagneur: Celebrating a song is unifying through our different lenses |

Tony Vagneur: Celebrating a song is unifying through our different lenses

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

“In the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the sea,

With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me;

As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,

While God is marching on!”

If you think this is a religious song, you’d be wrong — it’s a warrior’s cry, a call to arms — written by Julia Ward Howe in 1861. Ms. Howe was a Civil War abolitionist who, after visiting Union troops in Washington, D.C., was inspired to write “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in their honor. The song became the rallying cry for the North.

Martin Luther King Jr. paid tribute to the piece in his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” speech, quoting with oratory brilliance that only he could muster, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” He was assassinated the next day.

The song has been used by innumerable groups as a call to arms, a gathering of the faithful in a show of solidarity, a potential sacrifice of the group together in order to gain the high ground for the cause. Think women’s suffrage, “The Battle Hymn of the Suffragists,” made into a famous union tune, “Solidarity Forever,” and the ever-catchy WWII U.S. Paratroopers version, “Gory, gory, what a hell of a way to die.” It’s been resurrected by the likes of Mark Twain with a sly twist of the words in objection to U.S. violence in the Philippines; and used to close various memorial services to the lives of famous men.

For me, it came about in a different way. In junior high, I had no “cause” other than trying to figure the world out and killing time by playing the piano. My grandmother had a thick book of songs and lyrics, American standards, you might say, lying on top of the living room upright piano. There was little other sheet music available and I took to that book with enthusiasm, pounding out song after song, including “John Brown’s Body”, from which the melody for Howe’s song was inspired. “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave.” Sing it, and you’ll see it’s basically the same tune.

In an age of no personal computers, no iPhones, relatively few distractions, those songs could keep me entertained for hours. “Swing low, sweet Chariot” was a favorite, but the one most inspirational was “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Not one for lyrics, I managed to memorize every line, and could play and sing it all from memory at a young age. Mozart and Beethoven were lonely, displayed on the piano at my parent’s house.

It was the mental pictures that held my adolescent attention, that fed my imagination. You could say it was the symbolism, but I don’t think so. There was the stoic-faced soldier, retuned home, reliving memories of the gruesome battles in his head; the tear-stained faces of the widows, their gaze upon the flag-draped coffins of their dead, young husbands, returned home in a box. Charging across the fields of battle, “with a glory in their bosoms,” they were brutally sacrificed. Children longing for their fathers, unsure of flags, three-cornered.

All my images were tragic, the ultimate price of war tugging at my brain. If you sang the song, if you died, or maybe lived, Christ might be the man you wanted on your side. All the while, yours truly was there, playing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” for every heartbreaking, imaginary scene.

“He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” John Steinbeck knew about it and wrote about it in his Nobel prize-winning novel, “The Grapes of Wrath.” The infamous American Dust Bowl crushed the lives of thousands of mid-America farmers, sending them on an odyssey of survival to California. For writing this novel, Steinbeck caught the political wrath of both the left and the right. Strangely and humorously, equally, thousands bought his tome only so they could throw it on the blazing bonfires of nationwide book burnings. Steinbeck’s pockets jingled from the dissent.

Years later, home alone, the Judy Garland show came over our small, one-channel, black-and-white television set. Pundits say her version of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was paying homage to John F. Kennedy, who had weeks earlier been killed. As I sat transfixed, my eyes clouding over, such a backstory was unknown to me, and from the bottom of my heart I knew that the soulful depth of her performance was celebrating the song itself.

“In the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the sea,

With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me …”

Tomorrow is Easter.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at


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