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songs of warThe Holy Father’s recent negative reaction to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” prompts me to put that blasphemous and idolatrous song in historical context. American wars produce songs of hope, encouragement, nostalgia, longing, sadness, and humor. Only one war produced a stirring song of triumphalist heresy.

The war that made us independent gave us “Yankee Doodle,” a frivolous tune that threw back in the face of the Brits a term they had used to belittle us. The most popular American song, however, was written by John Dickinson. “The Liberty Song”:

Come, join hand in hand, brave Americans all,
And rouse your bold hearts at fair Liberty’s call;
No tyrannous acts shall suppress your just claim,
Or stain with dishonor America’s name.
In Freedom we’re born and in Freedom we’ll live.
Our purses are ready. Steady, friends, steady;
Not as slaves, but as Freemen our money we’ll give.

Giving a few bucks for the cause is not exactly like dying for the shining city on a hill, but Dickinson’s lyrics (set to the tune of “Heart of Oak”) became the most popular song of Boston’s revolution and endeared him to old Sam Adams forever.

Things were more serious for Francis Scott Key. Despite the rather lame melody that serves as our National Anthem, Key got republican hearts right in his seldom sung third verse:

O! thus be it ever when freemen shall stand,
Between their lov’d home, and the war’s desolation,
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land,
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto—In God is our Trust;
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

This is patriotism, home and peace and gratitude to God; men who are free because they are brave. It doesn’t cross the line into the Book of Revelation.

World War I, which was the first of a series of wars-this-country-should-not-have-fought, at least did not give us holy reasons for slaughter. “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” for example, or the stirring

Over there, over there!
Send the word, send the word, over there!
That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming,
The drums rum-tumming ev’rywhere!
So prepare, say a prayer, send the word, send the word to beware!
We’ll be over, we’re coming over,
And we won’t come back ‘til it’s over Over there!

Americans also sang “There’s a Long, Long Trail,” “Tipperary,” “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” and “Pack Up Your Troubles.” All in all, pretty good stuff when you had to suck it up and go into what most of our soldiers called “This Lousy War:” (to the tune of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”)

When this lousy war is over, no more soldiering for me,
When I get my civvy clothes on, oh how happy I shall be.
No more church parades on Sunday, no more putting in for leave,
I will miss the Sergeant-Major,
How he’ll miss me how he’ll grieve.

At least when we sent about 100,000 of our boys to die we did it with a sense of humor. President Wilson pontificated, but most ordinary Americans didn’t.

I grew up singing the songs of WWI around our family campfires, because my mother kept them alive. If WWII was indeed the Good War, and its heroes the Greatest Generation, it might be reflected in the rich variety of its music. “Coming In On a Wing and a Prayer” always reminded me of my uncle Gerry, whose B-24 never came back unhit. “Lili Marlene” was a German song that eventually was adopted by every western army, including ours. “We’re Gonna Have to Slap the Dirty Little Jap (and Uncle Sam’s the Guy Who Can Do It)” was one of many now politically incorrect but practical ways to keep us attentive to the dangerous enemy, as was “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.” The Andrews Sisters will live in heaven if for no other reason than “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” and so many others bring a simple human dimension to horrors that are without end.

Only the “Late Unpleasantness,” as Mel Bradford used to call it, gave us music that should make us ashamed. “Dixie,” while not blasphemous, is silly and falsely sentimental; as bad, in its own way, as the Battle Hymn. Our songs of war, like everything else about our good and flawed country, get mixed reviews.

Do we have any for Libya? Maybe Steve Masty will write us one.

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5 replies to this post
  1. Despite what Mr Obama said, the CIA have been deployed in Libya for weeks and now we learn that thousands of US Marines are steaming towards North Africa, presumably to keep America out of a land war. If and until I can think up a Libyan War song to last us at least ten years there, in the spirit of "plus ca change" here's Tom Leher:

    "What with President Johnson practicing escalatio on the Vietnamese and then the Dominican crisis on top of that it has been a nervous year and people have begun to feel like a Christian scientist with appendicitis. Fortunately in times of crisis just like this America always has this number one instrument of diplomacy to fall back on. Here's a song about it.

    When someone makes a move
    Of which we don't approve,
    Who is it that always intervenes?
    U.N. and O.A.S.,
    They have their place, I guess,
    But first send the Marines!

    We'll send them all we've got,
    John Wayne and Randolph Scott,
    Remember those exciting fighting scenes?
    To the shores of Tripoli,
    But not to Mississippoli,
    What do we do? We send the Marines!

    For might makes right,
    And till they've seen the light,
    They've got to be protected,
    All their rights respected,
    'Till somebody we like can be elected.

    Members of the corps
    All hate the thought of war,
    They'd rather kill them off by peaceful means.
    Stop calling it aggression,
    O we hate that expression.
    We only want the world to know
    That we support the status quo.
    They love us everywhere we go,
    So when in doubt,
    Send the Marines!"

  2. Sorry, Dr. Willson, but as a Federal reenactor I have a special place in my heart for "Battle Hymn." You are probably right about the first two or three verses being rather blasphemous, but the last about Christ Jesus is the most beautiful for me. I would amend it, however, to something like this:

    "In the beauty of the lilies,
    Christ was born in Galilee,
    With a Mercy in his heart
    that redeems both you and me,
    As He died to make men holy,
    let us stand to keep men free!
    His Day is Near at Hand!"

    Cheers and Have a very Merry Christmas!

  3. I recall, back in the 60s, Irving Berlin on television singing some of his flops. One Great War epic, on conserving food, was called "Can Fruit and Vegetables (and Can the Kaiser Too!)

    Churchill went to dinner thinking he would dine with Sit Isaiah Berlin, only to find that his staff had invited Irving instead. The conversation was said to be confused at first.

  4. Dear Cowboy, And did I mention that "Battle Hymn" is also bloodthirsty and conjures up Our Savior as a kind of John Brown? I once asked a very sweet student of mine, who was swaying to a pop song called, I think, "I want to kiss you all over," why do you like that song? She said she liked the beat. I asked her to listen to the words for a while, and she did, and said, "Ewwww! Disgusting." Well, I'm not comparing a suggestive pop song with Battle Hymn, except to point out that the latter can indeed be inspiring and stirring and still utterly blasphemous and triumphalist. I also don't much like the Pledge of Allegiance, either, but that's another story.

  5. Oh, no doubt, Dr. Willson! But then again, it is a product of its times, as are we all. Hindsight gives us the benefit of seeing things 20/20…or so people say,and thus we can see it as something more than the naive, resolute tune I adore. But then again, as you point out, I've heard "Dixie" so many times that at this point it has become silly and naively idealistic. That, and every time I hear it it's always right before a Johnny Reb bayonet charge at one of the reenactments!

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