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American Song at the National Book Festival (#BattleHymn)

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Design by Solomon E. HaileSelassie

American song is the theme of several music-related programs taking place at this year’s National Book Festival. As part of the Library-wide Songs of America initiative, the Music Division is presenting dozens of events over two years that look at the integral role of song in American social history. These public programs complement the strengths in the Library’s digital and physical collections in the Music Division, American Folklife Center, Manuscript Division, as well as the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.

The keynote music program at the National Book Festival is an overview of the Library’s Songs of America initiative by Susan H. Vita, Chief of the Music Division. Her talk will culminate the engaging musical activities taking place over the two days, which seek to engage the public with our American music treasures, Library of Congress curators, staff performers and also the latest research in the scholarly world.

The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a beloved (though controversial) song in American history, offers a great entry point into the Songs of America project. The tune that we are so familiar with today, set with lyrics by activist poet Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910), has undergone many transformations throughout our history. The title has evolved from “Grace Reviving in the Soul” (from Stith Mead, A General Selection of the Newest and Most Admired Hymns and Spiritual Songs, 1807) to the famed “John Brown’s Body” of the Civil War era, and even a 1901 political satire by Mark Twain, “Battle Hymn of the Republic (Brought Down to Date).”

Howe’s version of the text was first published in Atlantic Monthly in February 1862. Different versions of the song have been appropriated by various constituencies. During the Civil War Northern abolitionists would sing one version of “John Brown’s Body” while Confederate soldiers would sing a different version. The lyrics reflected each group’s political and ideological positions, which were not always static. “Solidarity Forever” was a version widely used by the labor movement between 1910-1920 (from I.W.W. Songs). Teddy Roosevelt’s final presidential campaign as a candidate for the Bull Moose Progressive Party in 1912 appropriated “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as a pseudo-campaign anthem.

Courtesy of Benjamin Soskis

The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song That Marches On, by John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis, examines the evolution of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and how it played an integral role in the development of an “American Civil Religion.” David Brion Davis, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University, comments that the book “uses popular songs to give a profound re-imagining of American history from the Civil War to the present.” We are very pleased to host co-author Benjamin Soskis during the National Book Festival for a special talk about his book and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as it relates to the Songs of America project. The Library of Congress Chorale will perform the famous Peter J. Wilhousky SATB arrangement of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” during a special performance at the National Book Festival (see listing below).

Selected Resources:
The collections at the Library are a treasure trove of resources related to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” with printed sheet music and historic recordings of various versions of the song. Here is a sampling of those resources:

Finding Aids:
1.) Julia Ward Howe papers, 1845-1917 (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division)

Sheet Music:
1.) “Battle hymn of the republic / Mrs. Dr. S. G. Julia Ward Howe” (Boston: Oliver Ditson & Co., 1862)
2.) “Battle hymn of the republic: for chorus of men’s voices with piano” by William Steffe, arranged by Peter J. Wilhousky
3.) “The John Brown song, or Glory hallelujah / William Steffe” (Chicago, IL: Root & Cady, 1861)

1.) The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song That Marches On”
by John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013)
2.) John Brown and the raid that sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2011)

1.) “John Brown’s Body” performed by J.W. Myers (April 29, 1902)
2.) “John Brown’s Body” performed by J. Weldon Norris Chorale (2003)
3.) “Battle hymn of the republic/William Steffe” performed by “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band (ca. 1953)
4.) “The battle hymn of the republic/William Steffe” performed by The United States Army Band & Chorus (2006)

For more information about Songs of America-related concerts, talks and special programs, check out the 2013-2014 Concerts from the Library of Congress season brochure.

National Book Festival Music Event Listings

Saturday, September 21, 2013
10:00 am-2:00 pm
Music Division Special Treasures Exhibit

(National Mall, LC Pavilion, Exhibit Table 3)

12:20-12:50 pm
Library of Congress Chorale, Nicholas A. Brown, conductor

Traditional American Choral Works by Copland, Smith, Steffe and Thompson
(National Mall, LC Pavilion, Amphitheater)

3:40-4:10 pm
The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song That Marches On

Book talk with author Benjamin Soskis – Signing to follow
(National Mall, LC Pavilion, Library Leaders Roundtable)
Presented in cooperation with “The Civil War in America

Sunday, September 22, 2013
12:20-12:50 pm
The Songs of America Project at the Library of Congress

Susan H. Vita, Chief, Music Division
(National Mall, LC Pavilion, Amphitheater)

Additional Information:
Complete National Book Festival Listings
National Book Festival Map


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