There is an important law of the universe that American patriotic songs have more verses than you think.
The Star-Spangled Banner? Four verses (the second is the one that begins with “On the shore dimly seen…”). America the Beautiful? Also four verses. Yankee Doodle? Three verses. John Brown’s body you just kind of improvise more verses until everyone is too embarrassed to continue.
So I shouldn’t have been surprised when somebody told me recently that there was a rarely-sung sixth verse to Battle Hymn of the Republic.
He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,
He is Wisdom to the mighty, He is Succour to the brave,
So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of Time His slave,
Our God is marching on.
It’s not the most sense-making thing (what is the glory of the morning on the wave?) But I have loved the song for so long that it still affects me. It almost seems deliberately written to be excluded, to be learned later, as if it’s some secret confidence or final warning. If I ever become Christian, it’ll probably be because of this song.
But the wiki page for the Battle Hymn is a trove of all kinds of treasures:
– The original John Brown’s Body song was an attempt to tease a soldier named John Brown in the regiment who invented it.
– Julia Ward Howe says she woke up one night, wrote it while half-asleep, went back to bed, and couldn’t remember any of it the next morning till she checked her notes.
– Mark Twain gave it a gritty reboot for the Philippine-American War. Other parodies and adaptations include ones by workers, consumers, the First Arkansas Colored Regiment, extremely uncreative college footballers, awesome old-timey would-be school arsonists, and me.
But for me the most interesting part is the evolution – and I use that phrase deliberately, taking a memetic perspective is hardly ever more interesting than just doing things the old fashioned way, but in this case I think it is. The song started off as a kind of boring standard spiritual that only sort of got the tune right, progressed into “John Brown’s Body” which fixed the tune a little bit by trial and error but had embarrassingly stupid lyrics, and then a lot of people recognized there was some value in the tune and tried to dignify it up and finally it was Howe’s effort that worked. You can almost see it gaining adaptive fitness at each stage until it suddenly explodes and takes over the world.
I know this is a weird post without much content. My computer is broken and although I have an emergency backup I’m without any drafts or my list of things I wanted to write about. Now I’m just winging it.