"Don't they know who John Brown was?" I asked a friend. "He was a terrorist maybe the first terrorist.".
John Brown took rich slaveowners as hostages, he planned a military action solely to disrupt civilian business-as-usual in our slave society, and many people, including his own children, died as a result. In Kansas, he committed brazen acts of murder he'd have said war against slavers. Although the Civil War didn't break out until 1861, it was Brown's 1859 attack on Harper's Ferry that showed the kind of war it would be. That's why the Union soldiers took as their anthem a song whose first verse was "John Brown's body lies a molderin' in the grave. . ." and which drove its point home with "John Brown died that the slaves might be free."
No matter what other pretexts modern historians and politicians come up with, the soldiers knew what they were fighting for. Their embrace of John Brown ultimately meant the embrace of John Brown's strategy of arming the slaves to kill their masters, a strategy eventually adopted by the President of the United States.
Soldiers set the Battle Hymn's words to a camp meeting song with the "Glory, glory hallelujah" chorus. When Julia Ward Howe, a respectable abolitionist, heard it at a Union Army camp in Virginia a few months after the war officially began, the lyrics included verses like "They will hang Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree." The camp chaplain suggested, according to the story currently at the Atlantic magazine website, that Howe might write "new verses more appropriate to the Civil War effort." In fact, the suggestion must have been quite the opposite come up with something less bloody and less committed to the war's most radical agenda: overturning the slaveocracy and freeing all black people.
Howe's verses, published in the Atlantic in February 1862, became the official version. So, 140 years later, the most powerful people in our nation proclaim the "Battle Hymn of the Republic"'s meaning to be: "He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat / He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat," after having spent the previous week condemning religious fanatics. (John Brown was a religious fanatic who believed slavery was a sin worse than murder.)
Singing the "Battle Hymn" at the prayer service reflected the complete ignorance of context typical at all levels of a society where knowing history ranks as an oddity if not a downright impediment. I've since decided it was far better to be reminded that American history contains its own terrorists than to be subjected to "God Bless America"'s gruesome rendition of Manifest Destiny, ramrodded into our brains whenever we're in earshot of a radio.
The first time "God Bless America" became a hit, around 1940, Woody Guthrie grew annoyed at its jingoism and wrote one of the very first answer songs: "God Blessed America for Me." Soon, though, he came up with a better chorus and title: "This land is your land." He wrote some great verses, too, and the best is the last: "One sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple / By the Relief Office I saw my people / As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering / If this land was made for you and me."
Nobody's singing that one at prayer services, not while greed remains good, the unemployment rate climbs back to double digits and asking questions is grounds for suspicion.
But if, having blasphemed against the orgiastic patriotism of my own day, I am entitled to a prayer here, let it be that some other songwriter becomes equally inspired and that that inspiration arrives soon.
Dave Marsh is one of the country's leading music critics. This article originally appeared in Rock & Rap Confidential. To receive a free copy of Rock & Rap Confidential's special issue on music, war, and terrorism, write: RRC, Box 341305, Los Angeles, CA 90034 or email@example.com. *