It is my belief that a single melody can carry an undeniable purpose even before being paired with a lyric. I suppose that is why “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the patriotic standard whose lyrics were first published in The Atlantic in 1862, is so stirring. I reimagined this anthem as a contemporary look at the American ideal, while keeping the melody intact.
The power of a melody is something we all have experienced. There is music for everything in America—it’s an undeniable part of the fabric of everyday life. Whether it’s in the form of nursery rhymes, lullabies, folk songs, spirituals, or drinking tunes, these melodies act as soundtracks to our memories and accent the ebbs and flows of our collective lives. Often, they serve as the connective tissue between generations. They are timeless.
They are also universal, and ubiquitous in every culture. It’s our natural inclination as human beings to inject music into every occasion. Whether it’s the satirical playground chant you made up in the second grade or the hymn the organist plays at your great uncle’s funeral, these songs have the potential to carry indescribable depth of meaning to us. They not only serve as a musical backdrop for who we are, they also become a part of us.
In the mid-1800s, compilation books were released documenting many of these traditional songs. One genre of folk music known as “marches” became prevalent nationally, reaching its peak in America in the late-19th century and into the 20th century. The march genre in the United States was greatly defined by John Philip Sousa, whose popularity influenced early American music like ragtime and jazz. You can still hear all types of march-influenced music in contemporary society; just ask anyone from New Orleans about a second line parade.
In stark contrast to many traditional songs, however, marches are a common soundtrack in times of war, creating a trance-like intensity that catapults a line of soldiers into battle. Military bands had a tradition of drilling and playing military music (marches) and local bands had a tradition of playing dances (waltzes, quadrilles, schottisches). The Civil War created a military culture that popularized these bands and their bandleaders, including the early-antebellum composer Patrick Gilmore, and the acclaimed African American composer Francis Johnson, who was the first published black composer and who participated in one of the first integrated public performances in the United States.
In most marches of the time, the drums appear like the heartbeat of our nation, and the melody is often optimistic and powerful, lending itself to lyrical proclamations of faith in a cause greater than oneself. One of the melodies that became popular during the Civil War was“John Brown’s Body,” which later became the tune for “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” “The stars above in heaven are a looking kindly down / On the grave of old John Brown.” The lyrics’ focus on the afterlife makes sense for a time when sacred melodies were often adopted as war songs. From the early camp meetings of the Protestant Christians to the front lines of battle, these ubiquitous melodies were well traveled, constantly deepening their meaning along the way.
I first heard “John Brown’s Body” on a recording by the jazz musicians Milt Jackson and Oscar Peterson; I was a budding musician, and was studying a lot of recordings. The melody felt familiar to me, but I couldn’t place where I’d heard it before. Eventually I realized that it was the “Battle Hymn.” It was the first time I had that experience of recognition while listening to a jazz song. The way they swung it was inspiring to me, and it marked the beginning of a new chapter in my musical development. I asked myself a question: Where do our melodies come from?
My first experience participating in a march came a few years later in 1996 when I began playing in the John Quincy Adams middle-school marching band in Metairie, Louisiana. We were working on songs like “Hot Cross Buns,” “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans,” “Eye of the Tiger,” and whatever else was the latest radio hit. Admittedly, sitting through band rehearsals wasn’t always the most fun—especially after experiencing what it was like to march in a parade! The band room felt drab in comparison to seeing the crowds react as we marched down the main drag of Veterans Memorial Boulevard, blaring a well-practiced song through our horns. Witnessing that power was a revelation.
I thought of those marches as I reimagined the “Battle Hymn.” While honoring its origin, it was important to me to showcase musically how patriotism can simultaneously evolve and unify people across cultural differences.
I started out by creating a march-like beat on the prepared piano, a beat that was crafted from several traditions of global march music; I wanted the movement within the beat to be a reflection of how interconnected our world is today. The United States itself is a melting pot of influences and cultures harmoniously coexisting under one umbrella, just as many musical styles can harmoniously coexist in one song. So I reimagined the “Battle Hymn” using just one instrument—the piano—to represent our one nation and brought in a variety of musical influences from around the world to represent the harmonious inclusivity that our founders wrote about in the Constitution.
The melody is ethereal yet triumphant, rendered with some dissonant notes and vocal wailing to add a hint of anguish. That is the sound of our struggle. Many have died in pursuit of what we call “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” I wanted the listener to hear the spirits of our heroes in the melody. When the lyrics were sung, I wanted the sacred context of the music to be present, as well as the blended styles of singing, from that of the Black Indians of Louisiana to that of the southern gospel tradition.
My objective was to speak to how amazing our country could be if we simply listened to ourselves and actually walked in the values we claim to live by.
I could have reimagined the piece in an endless number of ways, just as many have before me. We are billions of stories all trying to harmoniously coexist as one united republic. Our odds of doing so are better if we can remember that this country is best represented when we see each other as equals in the pursuit of life, liberty, and peace. Keep marching to the beat of that drum, no matter what the opposition brings your way. His truth is marching on.