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Sing along with Randy

By Randy Wright - | Jan 22, 2013

”CivilWar”I’ve got to give the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir credit: Its rendition of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was pretty good at Barack Obama’s second inauguration. The group was a lot peppier than the more famous Tabernacle Choir of Salt Lake City, which, although less relaxed, won a Grammy for the same song in 1960. But there was one thing about the song on Monday that was passing strange. The Brooklynites used the original lyric that was written to be sung by soldiers in the Civil War. Writer Julia Ward Howe was a Unitarian abolitionist who used the music from an old soldier’s ditty called “John Brown’s Body” to call for grapes of Union wrath to be hurled at the Confederacy. John Brown was the radical who tried to seize a federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in 1859 and was later hanged. Howe’s original lyric in the fifth stanza only makes sense when sung by Union soldiers willing to die for the cause of freeing the slaves:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea/With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me./As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,/While God is marching on.

That is how Howe wrote it, and how the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir sang it, although a great many Christian hymn books — including the hymnal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — change the word “die” to “live,” which makes a lot more sense for singers and listeners who are not in the Union army in the Civil War in 1861: As he died to make men holy, let us live to make men free…

Brooklyn’s fidelity to the original makes a rather awkward point: Let’s all die to make men free. No thanks. I prefer the message sometimes attributed to Gen. George Patton in World War II: “You don’t win a war by dying for your country. You win a war by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his.” Of course, that would be hard to sing at Obama’s inauguration. If they had asked me, I would have suggested an alternative. You can sing along:

In the squalor of the cities, Barry sold his federal scam,/Now, with glory in his bosom, he transfigures Uncle Sam,/As he tries to spend us under, let us all resist The Man,/The midterms lie ahead.

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