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  • Co-Opting Christian Chorales: Songs of the Ku Klux Klan
  • Michael Jacobs (bio)

When fraternal entrepreneurs revived the Ku Klux Klan in the early twentieth century, they added all the trappings of a secret society—handshakes, uniforms, code words, and music. But while the rituals might have been originals, the music was borrowed. Klan lyricists and musicians co-opted traditional Protestant hymns, patriotic songs, folksongs, contemporary popular music, and nursery rhymes into the making of Klan songs. Meanwhile, hundreds of local Klaverns (individual Klan chapters) organized their own vocal and instrumental groups for ceremonies, parades, and general entertainment. Some of these groups, such as the 100% Americans, Detroit Klan Quartette, and the Logansport Ku Klux Klan Quartette, recorded or toured for national audiences, helping the Klan take ownership of these otherwise familiar tunes and use them to promote an agenda of intolerance and exclusion. Klan recruiters (called Kleagles) persistently tried to link the Klan with American traditions and patriotism. And music proved one convenient (and potentially profitable) way to do that. But while Klan music may have started as a means to win recruits, it quickly evolved into a grass-roots effort to excite, entertain, and occupy.1

The official Klan organization, for-profit publishing houses, and Klan enthusiasts combined to create more than 100 Klan-inspired songbooks, with production values ranging from professional to homemade.2 While Klan music addressed a number of subjects, patriotism and Klan fraternalism appeared most frequently. John Nelson and Noah Tillery, authors [End Page 368] of several Klan songs, expressed both those sentiments in their version of “Mystic City” with the second verse lyrics:

We[’]re united all the klansmen from cities towns and farms, Bound by bonds of klansmanship, Far stronger than bands of steel, For their country’s flag and heritage they die before they yield.3

Klan songbooks contained well-known patriotic songs unaltered. “America” can be found in at least a dozen different Klan songbooks and the national anthem in almost as many. Another popular patriotic song, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” was included in at least nine Klan songbooks. The prominence of this Union Civil War song in so many songbooks alone should dispel any notion that the Klan was strictly a Southern phenomenon. Moreover, that it was the opening number in Musiklan, an official songbook of the Women of the Ku Klux Klan, published in Little Rock, Arkansas, should rebut the notion that the Klan hoped to revive the Confederacy.4

The Klan exploited traditional Christian hymns as well. “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and “There’s a Long, Long Trail” appeared in several Klan songbooks. Five Klan songbooks included “The Old Rugged Cross” and others reworked it into at least six different versions, such as “The Bright Fiery Cross.” Additionally, the tune was used for 1924’s “Yes Uncle Samuel, We are Coming Ten Million Strong” and 1925’s “The Great Fiery Cross.” “Onward Christian Soldiers” appeared in at least nine Klan songbooks. The same tune demonstrated even greater versatility for the Klan including versions “Onward Christian Klansmen,” “Onward, Christian Klanswomen,” “Onward Ku Klux Klansmen,” and “Onward, Valiant Klansmen.” “There’s a Long, Long Trail,” while less versatile, proved no less popular. In addition to its inclusion in at least half a dozen Klan songbooks, the tune was reworked into “We’re a Long, Long Time Awakening” and six other variations of the original song with the Klan as an integral part of the message.5

While William S. Pitts’s “Church in the Wildwood” does not appear in any of the Klan songbooks, the tune was evident in four different pro-Klan songs including two versions of “The Cross in the Wildwood,” “The Fiery Cross in the Vale,” and “The Little Brown Church in the Dale.” Both versions of “The Cross in the Wildwood” have thousands of Klansmen disregarding danger to kneel before a “cross that was burning in the wildwood.” In “The Fiery Cross in the Vale” the little brown church was replaced with the Klan’s symbol:

Come to the cross by the wildwood, Oh’ come to the cross in the dale, No spot is so dear to a Klansman, As...