Thursday, August 21, 2008

Dying for the right

This thing has been festering in me for years, and now I've got to get it out. My countrymen in far away places are dying. That saddens me, but I am no so naive as to suppose that we can get rid of the Taliban by offering them Oreos. But people ought to die for something worth dying for, shouldn't they?
Which brings me to the subject of this monolog. Dying and making it worthwhile.
Some years back, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir made a recording of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," that was a hit, as such things go. The music will give you goosebumps, sure thing, but at the same time, I'm bothered by it. For one thing, they didn't include all the verses. There's one that goes,

"I have seen Him in the watchfires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded him an altar in the evening dews and damps
I can read his righteous sentence in the dim and flaring lamps"

And another that goes

I have read a fiery message writ in burnished rows of steel..."

These verses are not there. The meat of the message, "This is real honest-to-God war," is left out.
But that's not what really gets me. In the Julia Ward Howe poem, one of the last lines goes,
"As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free." The Tabernacle Choir version reads, "As He died to men holy, let us live to make men free." As if living were some sort of sacrifice in time of war? As if freedom for all can be won without blood?
Not only does this destroy the parallelism and strength of the lines, it mocks the fact that thousands of men did in fact die to make men free. Do we toss off their sacrifice? The way the Choir sang the song was a complete evisceration of what Howe was trying to say. She was saying, "Let us be prepared to die so that people might live free." The Choir negated that poweful image when they wimped the song down the way they did. Maybe we should send a copy, with Oreos, to the Taliban.


Anonymous said...

I sympathize and commiserate so much with your frustration over war and the terrible loss of our servicemen and women. I agree this is always a tragedy.

I also love the Battle Hymn of the Republic and never tire of performing it and feeling the goosebumps it brings. I believe this song has great power to not only inspire patriotism, and Christ-like living, but pay great honor to those who have died for our freedom. Let me explain that reasoning here:

First, let me offer a little background on the song and the choices of the changed lyric performance which may help ease your frustration and see it with a new perspective.

This song falls into the musical category of a "Folk Hymn". A Folk Hymn is a song in American tradition which started out with a popular tune and usually with very bawdy (or secular) lyrics, and then later was set to spiritual (religious) lyrics. As a wise religious leader once stated "Why should the devil have all the good tunes?" :)

In 1861 Julia Ward Howe visited a Union Army camp and her heart just broke over the conditions, and the morale. She learned that as an unofficial anthem, the Union soldiers were continually singing a song called "John Brown's Body". The Confederate soldiers were also singing this same song, with their own version of the words. The words dealt with the more gruesome aspects of war. Mrs. Clarke thought that there should be more uplifting words to the rousing tune, and so she wrote the famous poem we all know now. The Battle Hymn of The Republic became the most beloved and enduring song of the Civil War.

As with any folk hymn, later versions become adapted to various arrangements which may add or subtract verses, and the lyrics are modified to more modern usage or to the theological inclinations of the groups using the song.

The change of the words to "Let us LIVE to make men free" is actually not exclusive to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir version, and is commonly used to set the song apart from an exclusively "War anthem". These words are a more modern application which invokes a plea for peace.

The prevention of war and tragic loss of our soldiers naturally stems from living lives free from anger, strife and hate; literally living as peacemakers. Thus, "Living to make men free" becomes a motto to fight for peace, instead of conflict. One will notice that these words come immediately after the reference to Jesus' ultimate sacrifice. Jesus laid down his life for all of us to Live eternally (make men holy). Thus, we should be willing to LIVE faithful to the message of Jesus life which was to "love one another".

I think one of the very best ways we can honor those who have DIED for our freedom is by striving to prevent additional loss of life. To use the freedom they have given us to spread hope and peace. I hope that this helps you a bit so that you can enjoy this beautiful song, in all of it's many versions.

- Peace and Best Wishes to you and yours always

bekkieann said...

Re "Living to make men free" becomes a motto to fight for peace, instead of conflict.

I remember when asked what he thought about the invasion of Iraq, former Mormom church president Hinkley said that sometimes regime change is good. I was sorry to hear this man of God not take the opportunity to speak for peace.

Sorry to interject this counterpoint as I thought mormonsoprano's comment to be quite nicely presented.

On both your houses said...

I appreciate your comments, but I have to stay with my original position. I was aware from the album liner notes of the reasons for the change, and frankly, I find them inadequate. What is appropriate musically may not be so for other reasons. If we look at the Battle Hymn as purely as a piece of music, then we lose perspective. It's much more than that. And, it's not a peace hymn, it's a Battle Hymn. It's encouraging people to go out there and kick ass for freedom.