When I was growing up in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, we listened to the news every evening on WHBL. But first we had to listen to the sponsor’s theme song, “Solidarity Forever,” Ralph Chaplin’s revolutionary 1915 union anthem. The melody was familiar: “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
During my elementary-school years, the United Auto Workers struggled with Kohler, the local manufacturer of toilets, sinks, and bathtubs. For six years, Kohler had refused the strikers’ demands and ignored judgments by courts and the National Labor Relations Board. The union waged a campaign of violence and intimidation against nonunion employees who showed up for work, bribing public officials to look away. Those years forever tainted the way I hear “The Battle Hymn.”
Like “Solidarity Forever,” the Civil War anthem was adapted in the service of a cause. The tune was sung in frontier camp meetings with the words, “Oh! Brothers will you meet me on Canaan’s happy shore?” In 1861, a band of Union soldiers from Massachusetts used the tune to pay tribute to abolitionist John Brown, who had perished two years earlier trying to spark a slave rebellion.
Julia Ward Howe, an abolitionist poet who later founded woman suffrage organizations, heard a Wisconsin regiment sing about Brown. She wrote “Battle Hymn” in one night, calling Union forces to “die to make men free” in imitation of Jesus, who “died to make men holy.”
Many other sacred songs have been co-opted by social causes, often losing or watering down their religious content. In 1931, striking coal miners in West Virginia transformed the hymn “I Shall Not Be Moved” into “We Shall Not Be Moved.” The chorus, with its echoes of the Psalms, stayed substantially the same. But verses like “Jesus is my captain, I shall not be moved” became “The union is behind us, we shall not be moved.” The civil rights movement adapted the song and, in Selma, Alabama, sang: “Tell Governor Wallace, we shall not be moved.”
Likewise, the Southern holiness song “The Gospel Plow” (“Keep your hand on the plow, hold on”—which echoes Luke 9:62) became the civil rights anthem “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.” In 1956, when Alice Wine reworked it into a protest song, she retained some biblical references while adding secular verses that spoke to the current struggle.
Hardly anyone remembers the church roots of the most prominent civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.” It was not an anonymous folk song popularized by Pete Seeger and other folkies. We Shall Overcome: Sacred Song on the Devil’s Tongue, by music-industry veteran Isaias Gamboa, reconstructs the story of Louise Shropshire’s original song, “If My Jesus Wills (I’ll Overcome),” first published in 1942 and copyrighted in 1954.
Shropshire was a talented African American who often collaborated with gospel music great Thomas A. Dorsey, author of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” She was close to pastor Fred Shuttlesworth, who was to Birmingham what Martin Luther King Jr. was to Montgomery, Alabama. King stayed in Shropshire’s home whenever he visited Cincinnati.
The melodies of “If My Jesus Wills” and “We Shall Overcome” diverge, but the harmonic structure and lyrics are close. One musicologist says you can use Shropshire’s song as backup vocals for Seeger’s, they are that similar. (Check out the Azusa Pacific University Gospel Choir’s recording on YouTube.)
Gamboa is angry that the folk movement pirated the works of amateur singers in churches, bars, prisons, and fields. And I’m saddened at the way social movements have secularized music that has given God’s people courage to deal with hardship and injustice.
Evangelicalism has always been a song factory. The tunes I listed arose within its most populist forms—which were also a seedbed for abolitionism, the temperance movement, urban ministry, and one vital stream of woman suffrage. It was only natural that populist movements with secular goals would draw on the tunes of ordinary folk who wanted change.
The secular versions of these songs have often served a wonderful purpose, but they have also obscured the faith roots of resisting evil. They work, I suppose, as secular people experience righteous anger at oppression. Faith, however, guides and sustains righteous anger, channeling it away from the spiral of vengeance into nonviolent, loving action.
David Neff is the former editor in chief of Christianity Today.
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