Written by Nate Chinen from WBGO
“The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a quintessentially American invention, first appeared as a poem on the cover of The Atlantic Monthly, in February 1862. Now, on a commission from the magazine, Jon Batiste — the effervescent pianist, vocalist and educator, as well as the bandleader on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert — has radically reimagined the song.
His version, which will serve as the theme for a new podcast, Radio Atlantic, features New Orleans street rhythm, gospel shouts and a wafting overlay of piano melody. Batiste recorded it on a prepared grand piano — using wire, tape, even his keychain — at Avatar Studios, turning a solitary performance into something resembling a social compact.
“It was a huge responsibility,” Batiste said this morning by phone, “not only to make it musically great, but to represent something that is pertinent to our time. This time we’re living in right now, there’s so many different things that we’re dealing with that are holding us back in a lot of ways. I want to try to contribute to pushing us forward.”
He alluded to the tangled history of the song, which bears repeating. Julia Ward Howe — a prominent New England poet and critic, as well as a leading suffragist and abolitionist — wrote what we now know as the Battle Hymn in November of 1861. “I awoke in the gray of the morning twilight,” she later recalled, “and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to twine themselves in my mind.”
Howe had spent the previous day visiting a review of Union troops along the Potomac. As she and her party rode back into Washington, D.C. by carriage, they began singing the popular dirge “John Brown’s Body.” A camp-meeting folksong about the radical abolitionist John Brown, that tune hinges on the indelibly familiar refrain: “Glory, glory, Hallelujah.”
But elsewhere in the song, the lyrics were earthy, and fungible: Union soldiers had taken to rewriting their own parodic verses. Howe’s companions urged her to write new lyrics commensurate with the nobility of the cause. What she came up with was a poem of Biblical cadence and urgency: “He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword.” It defined a moment, becoming one of the most enduring artifacts of the Civil War, and the thing for which Howe is most often remembered.
Batiste, who has made American folksongs a regular part of his repertoire, had that history in mind as he fashioned his reinterpretation. He also brought a guiding conviction: that an anthem forged in national divisions can still be made new, speaking to the strength and diversity of our own society.
Can you possibly remember how old you were when you first heard “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”?
That’s one of the things that’s remarkable about the song: It’s that I can’t remember the first time I heard it. I can remember the first version that made an impression on me. That was a version by Oscar Peterson, doing a jazz version. I remember listening to that version over and over again when I was really getting into jazz, when I was about 11 or 12, maybe a little older. That’s the first version — which coincidentally was a remake. And in remaking or reimagining the Battle Hymn, I wanted to stray as far away from the original, and also as far away from Oscar’s version, as possible.
And this song, which has already been reinvented a couple of times, obviously has a rich social history. How much were you thinking about that as you approached its reinvention?
You have to understand that in order to take the song and make a commentary on it. I thought about how much this country has evolved. We’ve gotten so many different cultures that are called American — so many different ethnicities, so many different musical influences. And you hear that in the arrangement, you hear the different sounds from all types of indigenous folk music and different cultural musics that are traditionally American, and also not traditionally American. That’s because I think it’s important to represent that America is not only one thing, it’s many things.
I’m also interested in the idea of the march. What you do rhythmically with the bamboula rhythm, it’s more like what we associate with a street parade or funeral procession in New Orleans. That strikes me as a conscious decision — but was it?
Absolutely. Because it’s connecting it to the original, but it’s also showing a different side of the original. The lyrics on the original are not blues lyrics, but they have a hymn-like quality which is also deeply connected to the blues. The New Orleans march and the bamboula rhythm, it’s connected to the straight march that a band in 1862 would play. But it’s also [chuckles] completely different in where it’s coming from. If you think about it all in the context of being American, it works. And that was the overarching message: We’re all in this together. It’s kind of what we, at our best, represent. The fact that all these things can coexist but be completely different to one another.
You are, famously, a great collaborator — but this is a solo excursion, and one in which you experiment with the dimensions of your instrument. Is there any significance in the fact that you’re working alone here, but alone in a way that implies multiplicity?
That’s exactly what I was thinking, because the approach was to find a way to connect to the original, in terms of the history, and in terms of the musical elements. But also to do the opposite of that, at the same time. So I used the march as the basis of the rhythm, but it’s a completely different march than it would’ve been when the original was composed. I played it on an acoustic instrument — I didn’t use a drum machine, I didn’t use electronics — but it was on a piano, which would never have been in a march context.
I was playing it as if it was many people, but it was just me alone. I was taking different elements of the sound from this acoustic instrument, and manipulating them in the room by putting tape or putting wire over the piano strings or taking keys. Different things to prepare the piano. All of these things make it feel as though it’s a huge departure. Even the melody, not being played straight but being played more like an improvised line. I approached it as if it were a blues song, and the blues ties into the history of the hymn and the Negro spirituals. They’re connected deeply. And this song is basically just a folk song. So it’s all connected; the influences are relevant to one another. The end result is something that’s completely different. To me that’s the beauty of drawing from the robust cultural fabric of America. It can be connected but come out completely different.
As you know, this is a crazy time of division and tension and turmoil and conflict — so, is there a particular significance to coming down hard on that message right now?
Yes, absolutely. I think that we have to understand that, left or right, or wherever in between, we’re all a part of the human race. And these things that we fight over are not going to get us to where we need to be — as a people, as a nation, as a world. I oftentimes think about how music is a balm to the tension and the division that happens. It can be a symbolic balm, because you can take things that we fight about, and show how they can coexist in harmony. So yeah, I definitely wanted to drive that point home — especially with a song that has so much weight and history. To take that, and show that the meaning can still remain the same in a completely different context. Can shed new light on that meaning, in fact. And that’s what I believe in.