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History of "John Brown's Body"


Song Sheet
"John Brown's Body"
   Excerpt (WAV Audio)   [472K -- 43 seconds]
   Full Version (WAV Audio)   [1.4MB -- 2min 7sec]



During a visit to Washington in the autumn of 1861, poet Julia Ward Howe attended a public parade and review of Union troops. On her way back to Willard's Hotel she found her carriage delayed by marching regiments. To spend some time, she and her cohorts in the carriage sang a few of the war songs so popular those days, among them, "John Brown's Body," which contained the provocative words, "John Brown's body lies-a-mouldering in the ground.... His soul is marching on."

Howe would have assumed that the John Brown of the song was the famous abolitionist. But the song belonged to a young Scotsman in the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia who shared Brown's name.

The Scotsman was well aware of John Brown the abolitionist. Having the same name made him a prime target for many good-natured jokes. As the soldiers marched, they would hammer out, in folk-song fashion, the tune that Julia Ward Howe would later hear. Lines like "His Soul's Marching On" were meant to tease the Scotsman. But as the catchy verse traveled to other units, it was known only as a song about the John Brown who was captured at Harpers Ferry. New verses were constantly added:

    Old John Brown's body is a-mouldering in the dust,
    Old John Brown's rifleís red with blood-spots turned to rust,
    Old John Brown's pike has made its last, unflinching thrust,
    His soul is marching on!


The morning after hearing the song, Julia Ward Howe wrote her own words to the tune. Soon after, it was published in the "Atlantic Monthly" as "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

John Brown the Scotsman would not live to hear this version. He died early in the war, drowned in the Shenandoah River at Front Royal, Virginia.




Here are two more versions of "John Brown's Body"


    Old John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
    While weep the sons of bondage whom he ventured all to save;
    But though he lost his life in struggling for the slave,
    His truth is marching on.

    Chorus:
    Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!
    His truth is marching on!

    John Brown was a hero, undaunted, true and brave;
    Kansas knew his valor when he fought her rights to save;
    And now though the grass grows green above his grave,
    His truth is marching on.
    Chorus

    He captured Harpers Ferry with his nineteen men so few,
    And he frightened "Old Virginny" till she trembled through and through,
    They hung him for a traitor, themselves a traitor crew,
    But his truth is marching on.
    Chorus

    John Brown was John the Baptist for the Christ we are to see,
    Christ who of the bondsman shall the Liberator be;
    And soon throughout the sunny South the slaves shall all be free.
    For his truth is marching on.
    Chorus

    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 deeds they mean to do,
    For his truth is marching on.
    Chorus

    Oh, soldiers of freedom, then strike while strike you may
    The deathblow of oppression in a better time and way;
    For the dawn of old John Brown was brightened into day,
    And his truth is marching on.
    Chorus


    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,
    But his soul goes marching on.

    Chorus:
    Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!
    Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!
    Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!
    His soul goes 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 goes marching on.
    Chorus

    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 goes marching on.
    Chorus

    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
    But his soul goes marching on.
    Chorus

    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
    On the grave of old John Brown.
    Chorus


Sources

"Story of John Brown's Song," an article writen by Edwin Cotter, published in Lake Placid News.
"John Brown, The Thundering Voice of Jehovah," by Stan Cohen
"John Brown's Body" by Benet; Quoted in "His Soul Goes Marching On" by Paul Finkelman


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