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I HEARD THE BELLS ON CHRISTMAS DAY
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“I heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” is not as popular as one might expect, considering that the lyric was written by America's first great poet.


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, or H.W.L. as his son Charley called him, was appointed to a chair of modern language at Harvard, before he was thirty. He soon tired of teaching however, and left to become the nineteenth century version of a rock star... the first American poet to make a living as an author. 
Longfellow lived a complex, plural life. 

He was opinionated, but abhorred political speech, preferring instead to speak through his poetry. A staunch abolitionist, he frequently used the money he earned as a poet to buy slaves, and set them free, but he was also a pacifist, opposed to the American Civil War - begun to end that slavery.  


Knowing his fathers feelings about war, Charley Longfellow joined up anyway. 
Unlike H.W.L., Charley saw war as a means of proving he deserved the prosperity and respect that he'd been granted in life.

 

Within months, he earned a commission, as a Second Lieutenant with the 1st Massachusetts Artillery, but was seriously wounded, when a bullet nicked his spine, in the battle of New Hope Church, Virginia.

 

On Christmas day 1863, while Charley lie recovering at home, Longfellow, inspired by the peal of church bells, wrote an anthem to peace.


Nine years later, a British organist, John Baptiste Calkin, set the piece to music, becoming the first to turn Longfellow’s poem into a song.

 

A hundred years after Calkin, Johnny Marks, the songwriter who gave us “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer,” crafted a new melody, the one most of us know today.

And in 2008, Casting Crowns added a chorus, and yet another melody, taking their rendition to number one on the Contemporary Christian Charts. Making Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, an actual rock star, a hundred and forty-five years after he wrote the refrain; “The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men!” 

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