Monday, 5 February 2007

And it goes marching on

About 1856 William Steffe wrote a camp-meeting song with the traditional "Glory Hallelujah" refrain; it started with the words "Say, brothers, will you meet us on Canaan's happy shore?" and the tune had such an infectious swing that it became widely known.

Early in the Civil War, a regiment stationed in Boston, using Steffe's tune, sang a marching song about John Brown of Kansas who was the first white American abolitionist to advocate and to practice insurrection as a means to the abolition of slavery and had been hanged for treason (against the state of Virginia) shortly before, but directed it as a jest towards a contemporary in their ranks also called John Brown. This version, John Brown's Body, soon became popular among the Union troops.

In 1861, after a visit to a Union Army camp, Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) wrote the poem set to it that came to be called The Battle Hymn of the Republic, in response to a challenge from a preacher who thought that that there should be more uplifting words to the tune. Her words are certainly pious, and, like those of most hymns, utter drivel (you don’t store grapes in a vintage), but have a fire to match the spirit of the authoress, who said on her ninetieth birthday “I march to the brave music still”.

[As a footnote to this story, a man who taught music at my school, a moderately distinguished organist called George Oldroyd, had the perfectly idiotic idea of writing a different tune to these words and making us sing it. On these occasions I and a bunch of rather louche friends sitting at the back used to stick to the original; this gave rise to a somewhat confused rendering, but sadly there weren’t enough of us to make it a real contest.]

Like the two I mentioned the other day, Cwm Rhondda and Eventide, JWH’s words with Steffe’s tune can be counted among the top Christian holy numbers. Another might be the tremendously jolly oom-pa Whosoever Will much favoured by non-conformists. These are personal choices, of course; others will have their own favourites which will often include the dreary Onward Christian Soldiers or Immortal, Invisible.

But why am I, as hairy an atheist as you could wish to meet (or to avoid), writing about hymn tunes for the second time in two weeks? Because some of them are rather good; they are mostly just strophic ditties but very satisfying to give out with in the bath. And anyway, do I have to be a Freemason to enjoy The Magic Flute, or a Muslim to be awed by the Blue Mosque?


Gervase said...

What on earth do you mean, hairy atheist? You don't look very hairy in your profile photo.

Tony said...

Ah, well, I was using hairy in the sense of holding beliefs deriving partly from inclination but mostly from empirical considerations.
("Es ist etwas in unserem Herzen, was über die Welt hinausweist.
Wir erfahren es in unserer Sehnsucht")
Quite clear now?

Gervase said...

OK, but:
Der philosophische Glaube ist der Ursprung allen echten Philosophierens. Durch Nachdenken über Gott wird Gottes Sein nur immer fragwürdiger. Dass Gott ist, ist genug! Das wahre Wissen in diesem Felde ist darum ein "Wissen des Nichtwissens". Philosophische Existenz erträgt es, dem verborgenen Gotte nie direkt zu nahen.

Tony said...

Oh, go away, you ridiculous old Scottish professor.

Minerva said...

The hirsute in pursuit?

You thought you'd missed me, didn't you?



Tony said...

Well, I did miss you, Min. Welcome back, sort of. XX