During the Civil War, both north and south used the song-poem to advance a nostalgia for their regions in order to create a willingness to fight. As evidenced by “Dixie” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the true specificities and historical contexts rarely mattered, but instead interacted in a conversation with feelings about older tunes to advance new views on abolitionism. The poets or those who “claimed” these two song-poems created often false contexts for the song-poems in order to advance their causes.
Messages and tunes mattered more than specificity of language in 19thcentury song-poems. The individuality of the poem, specifically its unique language and the identity of the poet, mattered less than the message the poem tried to convey. Song-poems often used the language of other genres—blackface “dialect”, declamatory language, Romantic images—to convey a message, rather than to innovate.
Often sung in large groups, song-poems focused on collective experience, nostalgia, and familiarity with tunes and words in order to create an “us” vs. “them” atmosphere to engage sympathies to enact change.
Dan Emmett, a northern blackface performer, used blackface dialect for his performance of “I Wish I Was in Dixie’s Land,” but this true historical context was subverted by both the north and south to promote regional nationalism. Emmett’s language mimicked the dialect of blackface minstrelsy, much of it for comic effect. A white man in the north playing the part of a black slave who missed his southern slave home—“I wish I was in de land ob cotton,” probably picking the cotton himself—surely would have been met with laughter from the audience.
In fact, much of the nostalgia for Dixie land both in Emmett’s performance and the later repetitions seems to rely repeat of the refrain—“Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.” In this way, the specificity of the poem seems to matter very little in contrast with the ease in singing the refrain and the catchiness of the song-poem. In other words, ease in performing a song-poem to foster a group unity was more important than the song-poem itself. Or, in the case of “Dixie,” catchiness was more important than the original intention for the song-poem. Instead, “Dixie” was used to foster a regional nationalism in both the north and south, and, the tune and the words of the refrain mattered more than the song-poem’s original purpose in using it as a nostalgic battle cry.
In “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Julia Ward Howe uses Romantic imagery to speak about the war, but also uses “John Brown’s Body,” a song full of call-to-action implications, and her own mythologized account of how the poem came to her to suffuse this call-to-arms poem with layers of meaning. Romantic images of the land in particular, like “[God] is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored,” as well as lines about God being around on the North’s side—“I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps” give the poem a feeling of poems of the past, a nostalgia for the pre-war north, and a reassurance that God has blessed the northern land.
Howe builds on this idea of God being on the side of the North by mythologizing—purposefully or not—the way that the poem came to her like a dream in the night. This idea of waking with the stanzas already in place implies that God planted the stanzas in Howe’s head, adding to the idea that God was on the side of the North. Also, Howe’s use of “John Brown’s Body” added another motivating impulse for those who listened to the song—John Brown was a man of action, so the listeners could take action as well. This meaning, coupled with the double implication of God on the North’s side, made this a very effective call-to-action song-poem.