On a Sunday morning in May in New Orleans, en route to the last day of the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival, I pulled my rented car over and parked.
Across the street from a monument of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States from 1861-65, policeman stood guard. Several Confederate flags waved. Some two-dozen men and women, many wearing quasi-military garb, had settled in for some version of protest, though this looked more like a battle encampment. There were similar scenes at the sites of other Confederate monuments then slated for removal in the city.
I wanted to know who these people were, what they meant to say. I waded into their midst, pen and pad in hand. They were willing to talk, in between what appeared to be strategy meetings under a live oak tree. They’d mostly traveled in from other states, alarmed and enraged by the plans to remove these monuments. They mentioned affiliations—South Carolina Alt-Knights, Proud Boys of North Carolina. A tall mustachioed man in army fatigues and a gold helmet said he was “protecting our culture” and “preserving our proud history.” Others said they “refused to apologize or be silenced,” and that “just like our ancestors, we are were prepared to fight.” A man in a leather vest with a Confederate flag slung over his shoulder told me that “the South got it right in 1861.” It was only a matter of time, he said, before that South rose again.
At one point, someone in a passing car stopped and shouted. One of the white supremacists shouted back. A plastic water bottle was thrown. Several cops came over. The driver and some companions got out of the car. I was standing in between, taking notes, trying to size things up, when a policeman tapped me on the shoulder and said: “Sir, you need to pick a side.”
Soon after, in the dead of night and using unmarked vans owing to death threats, the city of New Orleans removed four monuments: to Jefferson Davis; Generals P.G.T. Beauregard and Robert E. Lee; and an obelisk honoring members of the Crescent City White League who in 1874 had fought in the Reconstruction-era Battle of Liberty Place against the racially integrated New Orleans police and state militia.
In a bold speech after those statues were removed, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said: “We have not erased history; we are becoming part of the city’s history by righting the wrong image these monuments represent and crafting a better, more complete future for all our children and for future generations. And unlike when these Confederate monuments were first erected as symbols of white supremacy, we now have a chance to create not only new symbols, but to do it together, as one people.”
I remember speaking to trumpeter Terence Blanchard, as clear a son and a voice of New Orleans as there is, the morning after the Beauregard statue came down. “I had driven by that thing every day growing up,” he told me. “You got to the point where you don’t even pay attention to it anymore. But you’re not realizing what that energy is doing to your soul. Once I saw it hoisted away, I was caught off guard by the feeling of a burden being taken off my shoulders that I didn’t even know was there.”
It’s been hard not to reflect on all that after the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, when talk of the removal of another Confederate monument provoked demonstrations by white nationalists and neo-Nazis that resulted in one tragic death, and that brought out the worst in a president who seems, at the very least, complicit. In a powerful op-ed piece for The New York Times, Michael Eric Dyson considered the psychology that attracts these angry white nationalists to a “bigoted billionaire-cum-president who has done precious little for the white working class whose resentment fueled his rise.” Dyson recalled the words of a very different president, Lyndon Johnson, who said: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
Can a piece of music evolve with the times? Can it help us evolve, create new symbols, reflect anew on history and what it means?
I’d argue that’s the very basis of the musical culture of New Orleans, which nurtured both Blanchard and the pianist and singer Jon Batiste. Long before Batiste got his current job as bandleader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, before he even took up the piano, he played congas in the Batiste Brothers Band, a New Orleans funk group in the style of the Nevilles, alongside his father, Michael, who was the group’s bassist. It was Michael, and the elder New Orleans musicians Batiste studied with in his early teens at the Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong Summer Jazz Camp, who led him to believe early on that “music is glue, and it’s also a catalyst for action with a direct connection to social justice,” he told me. Batiste calls his genre-skipping version of jazz “social music.” He named his band Stay Human.
Recently, Batiste got an invitation to his own version of revisionist Civil War history. Jeffrey Goldberg, editor of The Atlantic Monthly, commissioned him to reimagine “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” That version now serves as the theme for Radio Atlantic, the magazine’s podcast.
Was Batiste channeling Michael Eric Dyson and Lyndon Johnson when he literally emptied his pockets during the recording session at Manhattan’s Avatar Studios? Or did he simply spill out his keychain and other items to create a “prepared piano”?
“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” has long been an evolving work. The lyrics we now know, which were published on the cover of the February 1862 issue of The Atlantic, were penned by poet and abolitionist Julia Ward Howe, in something of a fever dream the night after reviewing Union troops along the Potomac. The melody was derived from a then-popular dirge, “John Brown’s Body,” a folk song that may or may not be about the radical abolitionist John Brown (accounts differ), and which Union soldiers had often embellished with their own parodic verses. The version we know has become a patriotic standard, a soundtrack not only to the Civil War but also the Civil Rights struggle and America’s wars abroad.
I spoke recently with Batiste about this commission and what it means to him in the context of current events.
When did you first hear “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”?
It’s hard to say. I’m sure I heard the song in passing, at some patriotic event or on some bandstand growing up. The thing that attracts me to folk songs—and I consider this one—is that the melodies get inside of you without you being conscious of it. But I didn’t really hear it until I heard Oscar Peterson playing it, on his  recording with Milt Jackson. He was playing “John Brown’s Body,” which is the melody; it’s like the secular or non-nationalist version. Before that, I didn’t realize what it was, musically.
How old were you then?
Probably 12 or 13. Oscar was one of the first jazz musicians that I go into when I really started digging into jazz. Prior to that, I was listening to New Orleans musicians, who are jazz musicians as well but not in the same way. When I approached this song, I wanted to make my arrangement of it the furthest thing away from Oscar’s arrangement of it.
What was your strategy when you recorded this song—what did you have in mind to accomplish?
I was trying to create a musical portrait of what I think America has evolved into since the initial composition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” So you hear different types of marches, especially the kind you’d hear in New Orleans, based on the African bamboula rhythm. I play the melody as if it were an improvisation. And I sing the lyrics like it’s a blues, or a Negro spiritual. You hear a drone that has an Eastern feel to it. And you hear a lot of different things. The chord progression happens over a pedal point, which creates an ethereal feel, as if maybe things are not always what they appear to be. It’s contemplative, and that drone also makes it feel a lot more global. I think our country has become both of those things—global and contemplative. We’ve evolved into that for better or worse. We’ve been thinking a lot about globalism and what that means and about being united not matter where you come from. Or, in some cases, I guess we’ve been thinking the very opposite of that.
The familiar version of the “Battle Hymn” is martial and pious. Yours leans overtly on African and African American elements. Are you reclaiming this tune?
Less than reclaiming it, I’m trying to portray a holistic perspective of the history in the arrangement. If you think of the history, it is naturally African. It’s not really a political statement as much as my perspective on what that song means to me.
That song represents the American experience in a way that’s indicative of what we’re about as a nation. It’s like a relay race. The song, the torch, has been passed from one generation to the next and whatever the struggle of the time was—whether it was a war, whether it was slavery, whether it was an existential struggle to believe through hard times—it has taken a piece of every person’s struggle and become a patriotic anthem. That, to me, codifies what we’re about as a nation in musical form.
This piece of music is indelibly tied to the Civil War and the fight to abolish slavery. Were you thinking at all about the controversy over removing Confederate monuments in New Orleans when you recorded this?
I was and I wasn’t. When I make music, I’m always trying to create something that, when you hear it, it tells you more than what you think it would or what’s there on paper. There are hidden messages. I’m always going to have layers to what I’m doing.
But of course, those statues had to come down. It doesn’t resonate with the values of most people who live in the city. It’s not what we’re about. There’s a lot of baggage that goes along with that. For me, they should have been taken down earlier, but at least it’s done. Better late than never. But it’s a big deal, and it’s no big deal. It’s a big deal because obviously it has a lot of symbolism to it. But it’ not a big deal because whether you take the statues down or not, if the ideology of those in power and in the community doesn’t change it doesn’t matter. A statue is statue. It doesn’t change people’s hearts and minds.
Can a song change people’s heart and minds?
I think it definitely can. That’s the power of our history. It’s the power of mythology. It’s the power of music and arts in general. We create something. But it’s also a two-way street. The artist can inspire change. But you have to also accept the responsibility or it won’t fully transform you. It’s not a magic pill that you take and then you change.
Do the events in Charlottesville and the uproar around that change your perspective on this song and its history?
We consistently face challenges that divide our nation. The way our country has earned its resilience is by overcoming these challenges through perseverance and inclusivity. The art of American life is finding justice through compromise. The irony is that our deep-rooted sins always tend to resurface in a different form as generations go by. As Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” I believe we won’t fully solve our problems until we as a nation examine ourselves on the deepest levels of spirituality and truly live by the highest ideals of our Constitution.
Do you think your version of the song carries a message that relates to this current controversy?
Yes, and it’s very simple: Let’s come together.