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Reiver 2 ...hung Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree.. (23) RE: ...hung Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree.. 18 Jun 10

The explanation of the origin of the song in question is really quite simple. The tune was written around 1855 by a man named William Steffe. The first recorded lyrics to the tune were called "Canaan's Happy Shore." [It was also known as "Brothers Will You Meet Me."] It was sung mainly as a hymn or "white spiritual." The tune became very popular in the U.S.

After John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, VA, in Oct. 1859, which he hoped would set off a slave insurrection, a soldier from Vermont named Thomas Bishop, in the pre-war U.S. army wrote a set of lyrics to the melody that began, "John Brown's body lies a-moulderin' in his grave..." It became a popular marching song for Union troops in the early years of the U.S. Civil War. Later, after John Brown had faded somewhat from the scene, another set of lyrics were sung by the Union soldiers to the same tune, substituting the name of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate government. The opening line was, "We'll hang Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree." It reflected the attitude of many Union soldiers for whom Jeff Davis was the symbol of what they were fighting against. Southern [Confederate] troops soon retaliated by substituting "Abe Lincoln" for "Jeff Davis."

As an interesting sidelight, Irwin Silber (who has written a book about Civil War folk songs), claims that the original lyrics were not about John Brown, the abolitionist, but were in reference to a Scotsman of the same name who was a member of Bishop's 12th Massachusetts Regiment, and the lyrics were composed to poke some good-natured fun at the "runty, mild-mannered Scotsman" who shared the same name as the much more famous and fearsome abolitionist. Since the "runty Scotsman' was very much alive, and his body was not yet "moulderin" in his grave," the lyrics must have differed. At any rate the Scotsman would not have been familiar to soldiers in other army units, and most singers, I think it's safe to say, had in mind John Brown the abolitionist when singing the song.

Early in the war the 12th Massachusetts was stationed in Washington, DC, and a lady named Julia Ward Howe heard the song being sung during a review of troops. The tune made an impression on her and a companion at the review, a minister, mentioned that Julia should write some more inspiring words to the melody. Staying that night, Nov. 18, 1861, at the Willard Hotel in Washington, Ms Howe said later that she awoke during the night with the words of a song in mind. Worried that she might forget them if she waited until morning, she arose and wrote down the words that would become "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

Reiver 2

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