How Jon Batiste Made 'Battle Hymn' Bittersweet

The jazz musician talks about putting the “pain and struggle” of American history into the patriotic classic published by The Atlantic in 1862.

Jon Batiste records his version of "Battle Hymn of the Republic"
Jon Batiste records his version of "Battle Hymn of the Republic" (The Atlantic)

In November 1861, the poet Julia Ward Howe took the melody of the abolitionist singalong “John Brown’s Body” and added a new set of lyrics meant to inspire the Union to righteous victory. The editors of The Atlantic published those lyrics in February 1862 with the title “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” christening a patriotic standard that would accompany not only the Civil War but also the Civil Rights struggle and America’s wars abroad.

This year, the 30-year-old jazz star Jon Batiste reinterpreted “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to serve as the theme song for The Atlantic’s first podcast, Radio Atlantic, which launches Friday. Composed entirely on a prepared piano—that is, one with items placed in or on its strings to create different sounds—his enigmatic new version blends influences from around the world. (You can watch Batiste in the studio here and hear the full version of the song on Radio Atlantic.)

I spoke with Batiste on Wednesday about some of the thinking that went into overhauling such a familiar song. This conversation has been edited.

Spencer Kornhaber: This is a patriotic song, and we’re in a moment when people are arguing over what patriotism means. Did that factor in to your reinterpretation?

Jon Batiste: I think about patriotism as a way for us to foster camaraderie—but not at the exclusion of anyone else. There’s a line there, and that line is starting to get a little blurred in these times that we live in. Our brand of patriotism is one that’s, at its best, welcoming.

If you listen, it’s fairly explicit that I wasn’t trying to do the traditional American version of the song. There are a lot of influences from indigenous folk music around the world: Indian music, African music, early blues and folk, which is what a lot of American music is based on. It’s a very globalized version of the song, and that to me is a picture of what the world is becoming.

Kornhaber: I definitely hear that in this version. I also hear a different emotion than the original. It’s more mysterious and unsettled.

Batiste: It has a bittersweet emotion. The ethos of the song, to me, in 2017, is much different than 1862. I’m thinking about what we’re going through in the country right now, and what we’ve done with the mythology that we were given. When you think about those things, it’s not a happy journey, it’s not a journey that hasn’t had its struggles. Arguably we have regressed.

Putting that pain and struggle in the arrangement was really important. It was almost subconscious, because when you think about the song, you go there.

Kornhaber: The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” has always been a war song. Is this version a war song?

Batiste: Yes. If you think about the history of our people and if you think about how many wars have created great music, the “Battle Hymn” is almost at the beginning of that tradition.

Kornhaber: How so?

Batiste: There’s always a great soundtrack to a terrible situation, and that’s how our culture continues to grow. If you go back to African American slavery, there are the folk songs and the work songs and the negro spirituals and the blues, which gave us jazz. You think about Vietnam, and you think about all of the rock and roll: Jimi Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. Something about struggle pulls this creative expression out of us.

Kornhaber: Part of what made the original such an effective march song was not only the percussion but the way the melody was rigid-feeling, lockstep. You’ve done a really interesting thing and kind of unchained the melody from the rhythm. What was behind that decision?

Batiste: There are different types of marches, and a drone is one of them. So I put some duct tape on some of the lower piano strings to create the sound of the drum, and then on some of the lower strings I tried to create the sound of a Gregorian chant, someone humming: hmmmm, hmmmm, hmmmm.

To me, those two things together create a really pensive sound. The melody just doesn’t fit as well over something so pensive when it’s played straight. It has to be played almost as if it’s being improvised in the moment.

Kornhaber: What other elements from the original composition did you want to retain or reference?

Batiste: That march feel. It’s not a typical march that a band would play in 1862; it’s more a mix of different forms of drum circles, like the New Orleans drum circle or the African drum circle.

Also, with the idea of playing it on piano, it’s connected to the original in that there’s nothing electronic, it’s all acoustic. But the piano’s never found in a march. So in that way it’s not connected. (Laughs.)

I tried to put an element of the blues in there because it’s not in the original, [which] feels more like a hymn. When you think about the connection of the hymn with the blues, they’re one and the same—one is almost a secular version of the other.

Kornhaber: The story of the version of the song that The Atlantic published in 1862 is that Julia Ward Howe heard “John Brown’s Body,” went back to her hotel, and supposedly in a trance-like state saw new lyrics, as if from God. Does that at all compare with experiences you’ve had creating music?

Batiste: Oh, absolutely. I believe it all comes from God. When I think about the music that I play—in fact, I don’t think about it. I try to let my subconscious mind take over. And after the fact I’ll listen and see what’s there and analyze it, almost like writing an outline after you’ve written a paper. I do believe that it’s from the grace of the unseen.

Kornhaber: What other versions of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” do you find interesting?

Batiste: It’s actually something that I listened to as a kid that really was a big influence. Oscar Peterson did a version of “John Brown’s Body,” but it was a jazz version. I listened to that hundreds of times as a kid when I was learning how to play. I loved the melody.

Kornhaber: How would you or someone else go about creating something that could become a “Battle Hymn” of today? Not a cover but a new patriotic standard.

Batiste: You have to write with the intention of addressing a dire situation in the culture. But even if you do address racism or sexism or any of these things, you still can’t guarantee it’ll be a standard. That’s one of those things that’s preordained—you can’t really say “I’m going to do this.” The only way is to continue to address the culture with your output, and at some point, maybe, it’ll become a standard.