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Great songs sometimes seem to have a life of their own and survive by adapting to changing times and sensibilities. The song we now know as "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" has endured for more than 150 years and during that time underwent several dramatic changes in personality, as different writers and singers adapted it to meet their needs.

The original version was a religious camp meeting song written in the 1850s and began "Say, brothers, will you meet us? On Canaan’s happy shore?" The song eventually spread to army posts, where its steady rhythm and catchy chorus made it a natural marching song.

Soon, though, a new version appeared that hitched the old tune to a more militant cause. When the abolitionist John Brown was executed in 1859, someone created a new, fiercer set of lyrics; the song now declared that "John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave. His soul is marching on!"

By the time the Civil War began in 1861, the John Brown version of the song had spread throughout the Union army. Soldiers added new verses as they marched through the South, including one that promised to hang Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, from a tree. Meanwhile, Confederate soldiers answered back with their own version, in which John Brown was hanging from a tree.

The version that we know today came to be when an abolitionist author, Julia Ward Howe, overheard Union troops singing "John Brown’s Body" and was inspired to write a set of lyrics that dramatized the rightness of the Union cause. Within a year this new hymn was being sung by civilians in the North, Union troops on the march, and even prisoners of war held in Confederate jails.

Howe’s lyrics have remained popular for over a century. However, people are still using the old melody to create new songs, some of which are sung at schools today. When you listen to—or even sing—this song, you might ask yourself what has made the tune so persistent, and so popular, over the decades.

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For more background information on this period, visit these presentations.

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