first person / culture

The Powerful Tune That Drives ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’

A melody can carry an undeniable purpose even before it gets paired with a lyric.
I first heard “John Brown’s Body” on a recording by the jazz musicians Milt Jackson and Oscar Peterson; I was a budding musician, and was studying a lot of recordings. The melody felt familiar to me, but I couldn’t place where I’d heard it before. Eventually I realized that it was the “Battle Hymn.” It was the first time I had that experience of recognition while listening to a jazz song. The way they swung it was inspiring to me, and it marked the beginning of a new chapter in my musical development. I asked myself a question: Where do our melodies come from?

My first experience participating in a march came a few years later in 1996 when I began playing in the John Quincy Adams middle-school marching band in Metairie, Louisiana. We were working on songs like “Hot Cross Buns,” “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans,” “Eye of the Tiger,” and whatever else was the latest radio hit. Admittedly, sitting through band rehearsals wasn’t always the most fun—especially after experiencing what it was like to march in a parade! The band room felt drab in comparison to seeing the crowds react as we marched down the main drag of Veterans Memorial Boulevard, blaring a well-practiced song through our horns. Witnessing that power was a revelation.

I thought of those marches as I reimagined the “Battle Hymn.” While honoring its origin, it was important to me to showcase musically how patriotism can simultaneously evolve and unify people across cultural differences.

I started out by creating a march-like beat on the prepared piano, a beat that was crafted from several traditions of global march music; I wanted the movement within the beat to be a reflection of how interconnected our world is today. The United States itself is a melting pot of influences and cultures harmoniously coexisting under one umbrella, just as many musical styles can harmoniously coexist in one song. So I reimagined the “Battle Hymn” using just one instrument—the piano—to represent our one nation and brought in a variety of musical influences from around the world to represent the harmonious inclusivity that our founders wrote about in the Constitution.
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