The Battle Hymn of the Grapes of Wrath

You may have sung this irreverent song in grade school:
(well, no, not you: you’d never have behaved like that :)

“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the burning of the school,
We have shattered all the blackboards, we have broken every rule.
We broke into the office and we pantsed the principal,
Our troops are marching on!

Glory, Glory, Hallelujah! 
Teacher hit me with a rule-ah!
I shot him in the attic* with a thirty-automatic**,
And he don’t bother me no more!”

(*1950’s/60’s American slang for “fundament,” “sit-upon,” or “gluteal region.”)
(**A .30 caliber automatic pistol.)
(I’ve always enjoyed this particular rhyme, as well the triumphant double negative in the following line. :)


But then maybe you went to church and actually sang the original lyrics of The Battle Hymn of the Republic:

“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.”

“Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.”
[emphasis mine]

So apparently Steinbeck spent more time in church than in school. :)
(Or at least, he spent enough time in church to find the title for his novel.)

Julia Ward Howe wrote the lyrics to the “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in 1861, setting them to an existing tune, “John Brown’s Body”, a favorite marching song of Union troops in the American Civil War. 1861 was the first year of the war, and Howe and her husband were ardent supporters of the Union and of the abolition of slavery.

Perhaps foreshadowing “The Burning of the School,” the lyrics to “John Brown’s Body” were considered coarse and irreverent at the time. Mrs. Howe’s initial inspiration for her lyrics seems to have come from her friend the Reverend James Clarke. As the two were watching a public review of troops where “John Brown’s Body” was sung, he asked her, “Why do you not write some good words for that stirring tune?”

(Yet another, much later, set of lyrics, The Battle Hymn Of the Aerobes, may appeal to some of the vast numbers of biochemists who read this blog.)

“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was quickly adopted as another favorite Union marching song (the soldiers had plenty of marching to do, and needed all the songs they could get).
The Union won the war, not nearly so quickly, in 1865; and the last of the slaves were freed not very quickly at all after the war was over (see also: Juneteenth).
Legislation guaranteeing racial equality (the US Civil Rights Act of 1964) was passed a decidedly less-than-quick near-century after that (what? someone had a 99-year-lease on institutionalized discrimination?)
And a month or so from this writing, after forty-four more not-especially-quick years, a Black man just might get elected the President of the United States.

But what the heck did Howe mean by the “grapes of wrath”?
(Are those what you use those to make a Pinot really, really noir?)  

It’s not at all clear. The best guess may be that Mrs. Howe  derived the phrase from a (not all that clear itself) passage in the Biblical Book of Revelations: “And the angel thrust in his sickle into the earth, and gathered the vine of the earth, and cast it into the great winepress of the wrath of God” (Revelations 14:19).

Where John the Revelator got that, I don’t know – theories ranges from a religious vision from Jesus to the possibility of naturally-occurring LSD-like hallucinogenic compounds growing on the Isle of Patmos.  

I do know that this is only time you are ever going to see the Book of Revelations quoted in this blog. :)


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