John Brown's Body

Words by Anonymous; to the tune of "Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us?", 1859

Who was John Brown? What did he do that inspired this song? Who "wrote" the song? What were their beliefs about slavery? What makes this a good rallying song?

Why would this song offend people in the South?

This tune was originally a hymn. Later it became famous as "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Labor unions sang it as "Solidarity Forever." "John Brown's Body" is a folk song because people without special musical training composed it. What other folk versions of this song have you heard by students or another group?


"John Brown's Body" performed by Dear Friends on The Blues and the Grays, Pittsburgh: Thomas Studios [TS8710], provided courtesy of Thomas Studios, © 1987. Used by permission.

Dear Friends, the performers of this song, take their name from the last words penned by Stephen Foster, "dear friends and gentle hearts." As their name indicates, they specialize in American vocal music, focusing on historically informed performances of classic songs. In this recording, the strong emphasis on the rhythm gives added emphasis to the text, making the listener feel John Brown's soul "marching on" in military fashion.

View the lyrics for "John Brown's Body."

View the published score.

John Brown’s thwarted attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859 resulted in his being hanged for treason, sending shock waves through the nation. Some northerners awoke from their complacency about enslavement, shocked that someone would act so boldly on behalf of enslaved people only to be martyred by their own government. Southerners, in turn, could not fathom their fellow citizens making a hero out of a terrorist who advocated using violence against them.

The words for “John Brown’s Body” were sung to a popular Methodist camp meeting song, "Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us?", both of them known for their distinctive chorus of “Glory! Hallelujah!” “John Brown’s Body” spread through the northern states almost overnight. The song remained popular as a Union marching song throughout the war, even after its tune was appropriated for the now more well-known "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

John Brown ascending the scaffolding to be hanged, from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper v. 9, no. 211 (1859 Dec. 17), p. [33].

John Brown ascending the scaffolding to be hanged, from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper v. 9, no. 211 (1859 Dec. 17), p. [33].

Compare this song to:

"Battle Hymn of the Republic" (this unit)

"Solidarity Forever" (Unit 6)

A favorite propaganda tactic in the Civil War was to "reply" to songs with rewritten lyrics. Rewrite "John Brown's Body" from the point of view of a Southerner.

Debate: Was John Brown a hero? Did the end justify the means he used? Was John Brown practicing terrorism or civil disobedience?

What issue today would you march for? Write new words to "John Brown's Body" to create a song to rally people around your opinion.

 

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