Collecting spurs research, spurs “neat stuff”…

December 26, 2008 by  
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As all of you know reading old newspapers can provide an interesting perspective on history, and cause one to question what we remember from history class of long ago. And with the advent of the internet, verifying some “facts” as reported 100+ years ago can lead to even more intriguing footnotes to history which we’d otherwise miss.

One interesting tidbit came to light earlier today and is worth sharing. The NEW YORK TRIBUNE of Feb. 28, 1862 includes on the backpage a printing of the words and music with a heading: “A Song That Is Now Rather Popular”. I recognize the music as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, and was aware of the lyrics which began: “John Brown’s body lies a mould’ring in the grave…” and of course the well known chorus (see photos). I was also aware that Julia Ward Howe wrote the words to “Battle Hymn…” but a website provided an interesting backdrop:

“In 1861, after a visit to a Union Army camp, Julia Ward Howe wrote the poem that came to be called “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It was published in February, 1862, in The Atlantic Monthly.

Howe reported in her autobiography that she wrote the verses to meet a challenge by a friend, Rev. James Freeman Clarke. As an unofficial anthem, Union soldiers sang “John Brown’s Body.” Confederate soldiers sang it with their own version of the words. But Clarke thought that there should be more uplifting words to the tune.

Howe met Clarke’s challenge. The poem has become perhaps the best-known Civil War song of the Union Army, and has come to be a well-loved American patriotic anthem.”

Equally as interesting was another site concerning the “John Brown” mention, which I always presumed to be a reference to John Brown of Harper’s Ferry fame. Apparently not so:

“During a visit to Washington in the autumn of 1861, poet Julia Ward Howe attended a public parade and review of Union troops. On her way back to Willard’s Hotel she found her carriage delayed by marching regiments. To spend some time, she and her cohorts in the carriage sang a few of the war songs so popular those days, among them, “John Brown’s Body,” which contained the provocative words, “John Brown’s body lies-a-mouldering in the ground…. His soul is marching on.”

Howe would have assumed that the John Brown of the song was the famous abolitionist. But the song belonged to a young Scotsman in the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia who shared Brown’s name.

The Scotsman was well aware of John Brown the abolitionist. Having the same name made him a prime target for many good-natured jokes. As the soldiers marched, they would hammer out, in folk-song fashion, the tune that Julia Ward Howe would later hear. Lines like “His Soul’s Marching On” were meant to tease the Scotsman. But as the catchy verse traveled to other units, it was known only as a song about the John Brown who was captured at Harpers Ferry. New verses were constantly added:

Old John Brown’s body is a-mouldering in the dust,
Old John Brown’s rifleís red with blood-spots turned to rust,
Old John Brown’s pike has made its last, unflinching thrust,
His soul is marching on!

The morning after hearing the song, Julia Ward Howe wrote her own words to the tune. Soon after, it was published in the “Atlantic Monthly” as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

John Brown the Scotsman would not live to hear this version. He died early in the war, drowned in the Shenandoah River at Front Royal, Virginia.”

Just a few of the interesting tidbits of history one learns by reading old newspapers!

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One Response to “Collecting spurs research, spurs “neat stuff”…”

  1. Robert Healy on January 18th, 2009 10:28 pm

    African-American Newspaper–Durham, North Carolina

    I’ve been casually interested in old newspapers and magazines for a number of years, and have regularly used them in my university classes (I recently retired as a professor of environmental policy at Duke, and often used them to document early conservation struggles.)

    A few weeks ago, I got involved in a volunteer project at the historical collection of the Durham, NC county library, indexing microfilmed copies of a weekly African-American newspaper called the Carolina Times, published between 1927 and the present.

    The content, especially in the 1930s and 1940s, is amazing. I had known a fair amount of Durham history, but was taken aback by the many specific injustices documented even here (supposedly one of the South’s most progressive cities) in the Jim Crow era. There is much original research still to be done, and the newspaper provides a vivid counterpoint to the local white media, which are also available.

    Unfortunately, our microfilm lacks all issues between 1927 to 1937 and 1944-48. Also missing is the early version of the paper, the Durham Standard Advertiser, 1919-1927. Extensive searching reveals that no other library in the country has these issues, in any format (everyone has the same, incomplete, microfilm). I’ve used all my research skills to try to track them down, without success.

    It would be a real contribution to both Durham history and African-American history to make this missing material available to scholars and others. Might you have any ideas? Private collectors? Archives that would not show up in the usual searches of libraries or internet troves. Peak circulation was 20,000 (in the 1940s) so it is not a completely obscure title. The paper’s offices burned in 1975, so the original archive was lost.

    I can really recommend this kind of material to anyone interested in modern history. Any help with my own quest would be appreciated.

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