The evolution of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" reveals a great deal about the songwriting process within the oral folk/religious tradition of nineteenth-century America. William Steffe is usually given credit for writing "Canaan's Happy Shore" (also known as "Brother Will You Meet Us?"), the basis for "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," but there is no definitive proof that he wrote the song. In fact, the question of authorship for religious folk songs is often unanswerable. Within revivals and camp meetings, individuals were encouraged to pray, speak, and sing as moved. Songs passed from meeting to meeting orally and were often altered and amended as they traveled. To add to the confusion, two different versions of the original song were published in 1858; the version most like "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"—the one that included the "Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!" chorus—was most likely written around 1856.
"John Brown's Body" has a similarly cloudy history. One line of argument credits Maine bandleader and Union soldier Thomas Brigham Bishop with writing the core lyrics shortly after the hanging of would-be-slave liberator John Brown. Another account places authorship in the Massachusetts militia. Veteran George Kimball wrote in 1890 that his regiment collectively wrote the lyrics to tease a somewhat incompetent member named John Brown. His considerable shortcomings were satirically compared to the dramatic crusade of THE John Brown.
While accounts differ on the time and place of origin, all can agree that, once the song was composed, it spread quickly among Union soldiers. No doubt the song’s martial qualities contributed to it popularity. It is rhythmic and upbeat; the song’s cadence is well suited to an army on the march. Yet given the song’s evocative, soul-stirring lyrics, it’s easy to imagine “Battle Hymn” being slowed down and sung beside “the watch fires of a hundred circling camps.”
The range of possibilities lying within the song is reflected in the different ways that twentieth-century artists have chosen to perform it. For example, Judy Garland tapped into the song’s martial qualities when she sang it shortly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The words were delivered with a sort of righteous power, and they were backed by military-type musical arrangement. Trumpets sounded fanfare-like fills and the snares provided a marching beat.
Whitney Houston constructed a much different rendition when she sang the song in 1991. Performing before American troops, she drew out the song’s gospel potential. Especially in the second half of the song, when she took it up-tempo, we can see why the “Battle Hymn’s” ancestor, “Canaan’s Happy Shore,” was a revival favorite.