Music

How the Union Army’s Beloved Marching Song Became a French Christmas Favorite

An abolitionist standard, now with nutmeg.

Smiling singers in formalwear and an orchestra, conductor, and white holiday string lights onstage at Canada's Maison Symphonique.
François Goupil/Orchestre Métropolitain

To end a holiday concert at Montréal’s symphony hall earlier this month, superstar conductor and five-time 2023 Grammy nominee Yannick Nézet-Séguin led his hometown orchestra, two soloists, a massive choir, and the Taurey Butler Trio in a rousing performance of one of Québec’s most beloved holiday favorites: “Glory, Alleluia.” As in “Glory, Glory, Alleluia.” Yes, that very American tune—“The Battle Hymn of the Republic”—set to seasonal French lyrics.

The music swelled. Kim Richardson’s and Mélissa Bédard’s voices soared. The audience was “carried away,” according to Le Devoir. Nézet-Séguin exuberantly invited them to join in:

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Glory, glory, alleluia

Chantons, chantons Noël!

Revival camp tune, abolitionist anthem, battle hymn, labor song, jazz standard, requiem—“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” has been repurposed for nearly every context and genre imaginable in its more than 200-year history. In that sense, a holiday-themed “Battle Hymn” is no strange thing. The circumstances that transformed a 1960s American civil rights anthem into a sentimental French Christmas carol are, however, decidedly unusual and remarkable. French speakers sing “Glory, Alleluia” thanks, in part, to Ethel Kennedy, Elvis, a playboy record executive, and Ray Charles’ favorite French chanteuse.

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On the evening of June 4, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy showed his good friend, crooner Andy Williams, the secret gesture.* According to Williams, Kennedy planned to surreptitiously motion with his hand on live television near the end of his speech celebrating victory in the California Democratic primary. This was the signal for Williams and his French wife Claudine to finish getting ready and drive to an exclusive West Hollywood nightclub called The Factory. Bobby and Ethel were to join them for supper and more celebration after leaving the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel.

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From home, Williams watched Kennedy give the signal just after midnight. He went to the mirror to tidy up, but left the TV on long enough to know not to drive to The Factory, but to a hospital downtown. Kennedy had been shot. Williams spent the night sitting in a corridor of the Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, waiting to learn Kennedy’s fate.

A few days later, Williams gathered in New York with the newly widowed (and pregnant) Ethel Kennedy, Leonard Bernstein, a monsignor from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and others to plan the music for the funeral. The monsignor suggested a few Catholic pieces that Williams, a Presbyterian, didn’t know. An FBI agent suggested “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a march Bobby loved to play and sing at campaign rallies (and which had been sung at Winston Churchill’s funeral three years earlier). Bernstein was unimpressed. Ethel insisted.

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“I felt pulled and pushed by conflicting emotions,” Williams recalled in his memoirs: “nervousness and an overwhelming sorrow, coupled with a grim determination not to let Ethel—and Bobby—down.”

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At the end of the funeral mass that Saturday, Williams’ lonesome voice wafted through the church and into the streets through a live audio feed, bringing the congregation to its feet. Mourners inside, outside, and all along the casket’s train route to Washington joined in to sing the chorus.

“It was the most moving thing I ever heard,” wrote Williams. Even some finicky music critics were touched—sort of.

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“Hearing him at Robert Kennedy’s funeral made me, foolishly, want to give him a listen,” wrote René Homier-Roy in Le Petit Journal. (Roy otherwise disapproved of Williams’ slick, “devilishly well-made” pop albums.)

Wider public demand was satisfied that October when Williams released a charity recording featuring the St. Charles Borromeo Choir. The single spent 13 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at number 33 on Dec. 7, 1968. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” had become an unexpected Christmas hit.

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Only two lines from the “Battle Hymn” actually mention Christmas. Or, rather, the spiritual event Christmas celebrates. The fifth stanza—the final one of the version poet Julia Ward Howe published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1862—begins, “In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea/ With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.”

The text then jumps to Jesus’ death and draws a direct parallel between the sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of Americans on the Civil War battlefield. “As He died to make men holy/ Let us die to make men free … ”

For Howe, it wasn’t merely an elegant metaphor. She believed it was only through actual bloodshed that the scourge of slavery could be defeated.

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“The origins of the song are very much as an abolitionist song,” says John Stauffer, scholar of English and African American Studies and co-author, with Benjamin Soskis, of The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song That Marches On. A tune that began as a camp revival call-and-response hymn in the early 19th century had, by the start of the Civil War, gained its familiar chorus (“Glory, glory, hallelujah!”) and a salty set of anti-slavery lyrics inspired by John Brown, who was hanged in 1859. (“John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave/ His soul is marching on!”) With a nudge from her pastor, Howe decided to pen lyrics of a higher tone.

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“She wanted to elevate ‘John Brown’s Body,’ which had become the most popular song in the Union Army,” says Stauffer. “It was designed, then and now, for people who were already fairly literate and were comfortable with more sophisticated language.”

In a 2011 piece for Slate, Soskis recounts the dramatic middle-of-the-night bolt of inspiration that gave birth to Howe’s text. Though her intent with the words was clear, the elevated language allowed later generations to interpret the piece for their own ends.

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“Because Julia Ward Howe doesn’t identify who the enemy is or the patriot is, and because of the open-endedness of the song, it’s been endorsed by conservatives, progressives, and radicals,” says Stauffer.

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Because the “Battle Hymn” had come to mean such different things to different groups, listeners were at first perplexed when, in 1971, a country songwriter named Mickey Newbury made it the centerpiece of a three-song medley. Newbury’s “An American Trilogy” musically dramatized the conflict between three different factions during the Civil War—a ghostly echo of when America was last tearing itself asunder. The “Trilogy” begins with a wistful rendering of “Dixie,” to represent the South, which is then overtaken by a swelling “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” representing the North. A melancholic “All My Trials” concludes the piece, representing the suffering of the enslaved.

Though Newbury wrote and recorded it, the man who made it a hit was Elvis Presley.
Presley was in Los Angeles the night Robert Kennedy was shot and was deeply affected by the tragedy, reportedly vowing to never record another song he didn’t “believe in.” In “An American Trilogy,” he found an epic finale for his Vegas concerts that seemed to tell his own story as much as it told America’s. Raised in the South and made famous by northern commercial interests while singing the music of Black Americans, Presley practically embodied “An American Trilogy” in the flesh.

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Presley released “Trilogy” as a single in April of 1972, modifying the ending to allow for a tender reprise of “Dixie” and a thundering recap of the “Battle Hymn.” (Even in confessional mode, Presley was the consummate showman.) For the second time in four years, the “Battle Hymn” was a mainstream pop success.

In the late 1960s, France’s most powerful record executive, Eddie Barclay, was reportedly in financial trouble. Famed as a tastemaker, notorious as a voluptuary, Barclay lived a jet-setting life that kept him wise to l’esprit du temps. Inspired by American positive-message youth choirs like the Voices of East Harlem and the emerging popularity of the Osmond Brothers—then regulars on the Andy Williams Show—he tasked singer-songwriters Jacqueline Herrenschmidt and François Bernheim with assembling a similar group for his Barclay label to help pull it out of debt.

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The result was Les Poppys, a 17-voice boys’ choir selected from a suburban church ensemble known for performing American spirituals. Herrenschmidt and Bernheim encouraged the boys to contribute to the lyric-writing process for their first single, released in time for Christmas 1970. Not a song about snow or Saint Nick, “Noël 70” was a children’s plea for peace during the dark days of the Vietnam War. Not everyone was impressed with the political bent.

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“These Poppys are in the process of murdering old Petit Papa Noël, the one who descends from the sky onto record players every year,” joked French weekly L’Express, referring to the 1946 Tino Rossi Christmas hit.

Barclay’s instincts were nevertheless spot on: The single sold impressively and improved the label’s finances. For the next three years, Les Poppys enjoyed massive European success singing a mix of new compositions and foreign hits with tailor-made French lyrics. In 1973 they released “An American Trilogy” with a loose French translation credited to Herrenschmidt and Bernheim. The mélange worked.

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“Today,” Barclay told Billboard reporter Henry Kahn in 1974, “the best sellers are those with plenty of rhythm and a running, simple and easily remembered melody. They cannot go wrong.”

That same year, one of Barclay’s most successful lyric writers, André Pascal (the nom de plume of André Pascal Nicolas di Fusco), turned his hand to reworking “The Battle Hymn.”

It was a familiar task. Pascal cut his teeth in the late 1950s and early ’60s writing French lyrics for sometimes inane foreign pop hits. He turned Sam Cooke’s “Twistin’ the Night Away” into “Laissez-Nous Twister”; Neil Sedaka’s “Going Home to Mary Lou” became “Oh Mary Lou.” The genre was called yéyé music for the shouts of nonsense words, like “yeah,” so common in early rock. (Or, in the case of “Mary Lou,” “Ding dong ding dong click clack a chugga chugga.”)

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For “Battle Hymn,” Pascal decided to keep the chorus but refashion the verses, transforming the piece into—what else—a plea for peace, albeit one less strident than Les Poppys’ “Noël 70.” Julia Ward Howe’s apocalyptic opening line (“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord”) was changed to the dewy “La plus belle nuit du monde/ C’est cette nuit de Noël” (“The most beautiful night in the world/ Is this Christmas night”). The song continues, retelling the story of the birth in the manger and the star of Bethlehem that calls on all peoples to live in harmony. (“So many things separate them/ This star unites them.”)

With a sweet message, a familiar melody, and plenty of rhythm, “Glory, Alleluia” had all the makings of a fine, though forgettable, holiday hit. But Les Poppys were not the only recording artists interested in the song.

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The mystery singer Nicoletta heard in the record shop was far from the last female powerhouse singer to tackle “Glory, Alleluia.” French star Sheila recorded it a year later.
Québécoise singer Nicole Martin made it a hit in 1979 when she included it on an album with other traditional fare (like “Petit Papa Noël,” which Les Poppys had evidently failed to kill, after all). It’s that recording that Claude Saucier, host of Radio-Canada’s C’est Si Bon, points to as the moment “Glory, Alleluia” became as Christmassy and Québécoise as tourtière de Noël.

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“It’s been played many, many times on the radio and it comes back every year at Christmas time,” Saucier wrote in an email. “So we forgot the martial origins of the song and it became a Christmas carol.”

“Though, it’s been played a little less in the last few years,” he adds.

Luckily, it can still be heard to ring out in the hallowed hall of the Maison symphonique, or with raised voices around the piano at many a nog-fueled fête. Maybe you, too, will make room for “Glory, Alleluia” on your holiday playlist this year. (Céline Dion’s youthful cover is definitely worth a listen.) The tune is immensely pleasurable to sing, so be sure to join in. If the French lyrics aren’t to your taste, feel free to rewrite them to suit the occasion—you wouldn’t be the first.

Correction, Dec. 27, 2022: This article originally misidentified Robert F. Kennedy as Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

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