John Brown’s Body

Most of us have heard or even sung as a child John Brown’s body lies a mouldering in the grave. Or if not that we are certainly familiar with the Battle Hymn of the Republic which adapted the song to a more general patriotic song. However, what most of us don’t know is that the history of the song is as complex as the man it is named after.

John Brown’s Body as performed by the great Pat Robeson truer to the original version.

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It is widely believed that the tune for  John Brown’s Body comes from a hymn “Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us”  that was created in American Camp meetings. These meetings were Protestant religious services. The song was first copyrighted on November 27 of 1858  by G. S. Scofield in New York City, with the following lyrics:

“Say, brothers will you meet us

Say, brothers will you meet us

Say, brothers will you meet us

On Canaan’s happy shore.

Glory, glory, hallelujah

Glory, glory, hallelujah

Glory, glory, hallelujah

For ever, evermore!

A Version that includes many more verses and includes images of John Brown and the era.

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Despite the copyright, the actual writing of the tune has been claimed by many people, and no definitive author has been recognized by historians.

The song we now know as John Brown’s got its start on May 12, 1861, at Fort Warren on George’s Island, Boston Harbor. It was there that , members of the Second Battalion, of the Twelfth Massachusetts had a surprise for one of their members, a Sergeant John Brown at a flag raising ceremony. The band struck up the tune to Say Brother’s, Will You Meet Us, while the troops sang:

John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave;

John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave;

John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave!

His soul’s marching on!

CHORUS.

Glory, halle – hallelujah! Glory, halle – hallelujah!

Glory, halle – hallelujah! his soul’s marching on!

He’s gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord!

He’s gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord!

He’s gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord!

His soul’s marching on!

John Brown’s knapsack is strapped upon his back!

John Brown’s knapsack is strapped upon his back!

John Brown’s knapsack is strapped upon his back!

His soul’s marching on!

We’ll feed old Jeff Davis sour apples

We’ll feed old Jeff Davis sour apples

We’ll feed old Jeff Davis sour apples

’til he gets the diarhee.

The song however, does not refer to the famous John Brown, with the exception of first three lines referencing his moldering in the grave. After that it refers to their fellow soldier with the same name. His soul marching on is in fact him marching. The Union Army was often referenced as the Army of the Lord by Army chaplains. It is reported that this John Brown was a diminutive man and the knapsack on his back was a dig at this small man carrying around an over sized knapsack. The whole song was meant as a good nature ribbing of their fellow soldier.

The troops continued singing it as a marching song, with other divisions hearing it and adopting, adding versus as they did. The song spread with each group assuming it referenced the more famous John Brown.  With time versions became more complex, much of the repetition was reduced and the lyrics became more poetic, indicating that writers were adding versus rather then troops adapting it on the fly.  Other versus include the following:

“We’ll hang old Jeff Davis

We’ll hang old Jeff Davis

We’ll hang old Jeff Davis

from a sour apple tree.

John Brown died that the slave might be free,

John Brown died that the slave might be free,

John Brown died that the slave might be free,

His soul is marching on.”

The following versus for the song were written by William W. Patton

Old John Brown’s body lies moldering in the grave,

While weep the sons of bondage whom he ventured all to save;

But though he lost his life while struggling for the slave,

His soul is marching on.

John Brown was a hero, undaunted, true and brave,

And Kansas knows his valor when he fought her rights to save;

Now, though the grass grows green above his grave,

His soul is marching on.

He captured Harper’s Ferry, with his nineteen men so few,

And frightened “Old Virginny” till she trembled through and through;

They hung him for a traitor, themselves the traitor crew,

But his soul is marching on.

John Brown was John the Baptist of the Christ we are to see,

Christ who of the bondmen shall the Liberator be,

And soon throughout the Sunny South the slaves shall all be free,

For his soul is marching on.

The conflict that he heralded he looks from heaven to view,

On the army of the Union with its flag red, white and blue.

And heaven shall ring with anthems o’er the deed they mean to do,

For his soul is marching on.

Ye soldiers of Freedom, then strike, while strike ye may,

The death blow of oppression in a better time and way,

For the dawn of old John Brown has brightened into day,

And his soul is marching on.

The Battle Hymn of the Republic

On November 17, 1861  Julia Ward Howe heard troops singing John Brown’s Body and was encouraged by the Reverend James Freeman Clarke to  “write some good words for that stirring tune.” The very next day she wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic replacing overt references to John Brown with God. Some historians believe that although the words seemed to have been cleansed of John Brown, that the implications about him were still there. Verses like “He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword,” were felt by some to be references to John Brown. The idea was reasonable as Julia Howe’s husband was one of the “secret six,”  a group of wealthy individuals that funded John Brown, including (whether knowingly or unknowingly) the raid on Harper’s Ferry. Whether the words subtly reference him or not they certainly agree with his ideas that an angry God would reap his wrath upon the slave-owning society, whether it be directly or by human instruments like John Brown or the Union Army.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;

He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:

His truth is marching on.

(Chorus)

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,

They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;

I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:

His day is marching on.

(Chorus)

His day is marching on.

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:

“As ye deal with my condemners, so with you my grace shall deal;

Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,

Since God is marching on.

(Chorus)

Since God is marching on.

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;

He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat:

Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!

Our God is marching on.

(Chorus)

Our God is marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,

With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.

As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,

While God is marching on.

(Chorus)

While God is marching on.

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,

He is Wisdom to the mighty, He is Succour to the brave,

So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of Time His slave,

Our God is marching on.

(Chorus)

A version of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, worth seeing for the historic Civil war photos and paintings.

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John Brown’s Body – The Poem

A 1929 Pulitzer Prize-winning book-length poem, took the title of the song John Brown’s Body. The poem was written by Stephen Vincent Benét, and is a history of the Civil War. The play was performed on Broadway in 1953 starring Tyrone Powers and directed by Charles Laughton. The book is available online through Project Gutenberg at John Brown’s Body. Or if you prefer you can listen to the whole poem narrated by Dick Korf.