John Brown’s Body

TITLE: John Brown’s Body
AUTHOR: unknown
CATEGORY: Traditional, Public Domain
KEYWORDS: Civil War, Black(s), death, execution, memorial, burial, rebellion, slavery
EARLIEST PRINTED OR RECORDED REFERENCE: 1861 (Huntington)
John-Brown-daguerreotype-631.jpg__800x600_q85_cropHISTORICAL REFERENCES: The song, as we know it today, is about John Brown, the Baptist preacher and radical abolitionist who, with 20 others (fifteen of them, including Brown’s three sons, are white) attacked the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia on October 16-18, 1859. Their hope was to gather the weapons needed for a slave rebellion. U.S. Forces led by Robert E. Lee soon attack the rebels; only Brown and four others live to be captured and placed on trial. John Brown was hung on Dec 2, 1859.

But originally, soldiers in the Second Battalion, Boston Light Infantry, (a.k.a. the “Tiger” Battalion) who were stationed at Fort Warren on Georges Island in Bostons outer harbor were set to cleaning up debris on the parade ground. Two Maine recruits sang a simple song as they worked called “Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us.” Harry Hallgreen of the Tigers picked up the song and taught it to other members of his battalion. Among the Tigers was a certain Sergeant John Brown who came in for a lot of ribbing because he had the same name as the man who had been executed at Charlestown, Virginia, for trying to cause a slave revolt. Eventually Hallgreen invented a new line for the Say, Brothers” song to spoof the lively activities of Sergeant Brown: “John Browns body lies a mouldering in the grave.” Another member of the Tigers, James Greenleaf, added the tag line: “His souls marching on!” More verses were added later.

As the song gained in popularity, it became about the more famous/infamous terrorist/hero. The song continued to morph into many different versions.

The question remains, was John Brown a terrorist, hero, or an idiot? Abraham Lincoln weighed in when he said in his famous Cooper Union speech, “John Brown’s effort was peculiar. It was not a slave insurrection. It was an attempt by white men to get up a revolt among slaves, in which the slaves refused to participate. In fact, it was so absurd that the slaves, with all their ignorance, saw plainly enough it could not succeed.” (various sources used including, R. Blakeslee Gilpin in the New York Times, and Robert Willis Allen
in his article, “Various Versions of the John Brown Song
Spanning More Than a Century”)

OTHER TITLES AND VARIATIONS:

  • Say Brother, Can You Meet Me?
  • The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (tune & meter)
  • “Marching On” (tune & meter)
  • “Solidarity Forever” (tune)
  • “Marching Song of the First Arkansas” (tune)
  •  “James Brown” (tune)
  • “On to Washington” (tune)
  • “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Burning of the School” (tune)
  • “The Bulldog on the Bank” (tune)
  • “Pass Around the Bottle (As We Go Marching Home)” (tune)
  • “The President’s Proclamation” (tune)

RECORDINGS: (mp3’s available through Amazon.com)

YOUTUBE VIDEO:

YOUTUBE AUDIO: download
LYRIC & CHORD PRO CHART: download
PPT LYRICS FOR THE CLASSROOM: download
BONUS YOUTUBE VIDEO: Gloria Jane

John Brown’s Body

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!

Glory, glory, hallelujah!  Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah! But 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!

Glory, glory, hallelujah!  Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah! But 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!

Glory, glory, hallelujah!  Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah! But his soul’s marching on!

John Brown died that the slaves might be free,
John Brown died that the slaves might be free,
John Brown died that the slaves might be free,
His soul’s marching on!

Glory, glory, hallelujah!  Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah! But his soul’s marching on!

The stars above in heaven now are looking kindly down,
The stars above in heaven now are looking kindly down,
The stars above in heaven now are looking kindly down,
His soul’s marching on!

Glory, glory, hallelujah!  Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah! But his soul’s marching on!

SOURCES:

  • Folk Song Index: A Comprehensive Guide to the Florence E. Brunnings Collection, Florence E. Brunnings, Garland Publishing, Inc., New York and London 1981—Amazon Books
  • Country Music Sources: A Biblio-Discography of Commercially Recorded Traditional Music, Guthrie T. Meade, Jr. with Dick Spottswood and Douglas S. Meade, Southern Folklife Collection, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries, NC 2002—Amazon Books

SONGBOOKS:

NOTICE: I’m not the best guitar player or vocalist, but no one loves these songs more than I do. The tune and lyrics are in the public domain unless otherwise noted. The recording © copyright 2013 by Stephen Griffith and may be used by permission of the copyright holder. The variation of the song I’m posting is the version I perform and is not exactly replicating the sources cited, but is always in the same song family. If anyone has more details about this song, or believes I’ve stated something in error, please let me know. I’m also open to suggestions to improve the site. Thanks. sgg

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