About once a year you hear the name Julia Ward Howe: She gave us Mother’s Day, declaring it first in 1870. Howe was primarily a writer and an activist; her work included poetry and lyrics, and she rallied for the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, and peace. Born in 1819 in New York City, most famously she adapted the lyrics to “America” to fit the women’s suffrage cause. In the Civil War era, in folk tradition, she rewrote the words to the existing songs “Canaan’s Happy Shore” and “Say Brothers, Will You Meet Us” as “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (which also provides the melody of abolitionist anthem, “John Brown’s Body,” circulating at the same time). In her memoir, Howe wrote of the poem coming to her in her sleep, and rising to transcribe the words: “I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper,” she wrote.
A century later, the song was repurposed by Len Chandler for the Civil Rights Movement as “Move On Over.”
You promise us the vote then sing us We Shall Overcome
Hey but John Brown knew what freedom was he died to win us some
And the Movement’s moving on
One of the singer-songwriters on the early ’60s Greenwich Village folk scene (one of his original melodies was borrowed by Bob Dylan), Chandler stuck with topical songs and movement building, and went on to put “Move On Over” to work in the anti-Vietnam War effort, updating it again and performing it for troops throughout Southeast Asia. What a striking example of how a song can travel the miles, from one movement to another, to another, without losing authority or missing a beat of its heart—or its intention to preserve humanity, and the life of some mother’s daughter or her son. Glory Hallelujah, Len Chandler and Julia Ward Howe: Your mothers would be proud. And to all the mothers—including my own–along with the stepmothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, and others it takes to get the job done: Happy Mother’s Day. Love and thanks for birthing and raising your children and helping them through.
I thought you mothers (and others) would like this image–it’s a lithograph by Charles White (1918-1979). The Chicago-born artist made his name mid-career and later, largely on the work created and shown in Los Angeles during the ’60s. This work from 1976 is titled “I Have A Dream,” and was included alongside White’s politically-charged and socially conscious-works in the Hammer Museum exhibit, Now Dig This! (I’ve heard it will begin traveling soon). I think moms will also dig this well-known song but lesser-seen clip of “What’s Going On?” by Marvin Gaye, performing at the Save the Children concert event in 1973.
More on Len Chandler, Julia Ward Howe and Marvin Gaye in Keep on Pushing