historic sheet music

THE SONG JOHN BROWN’S BODY - WHERE DID IT COME FROM?

FROM THE CIVIL WAR TO WORLD WAR II THIS SONG HAS INSPIRED MANY VERSIONS-THE TUNE EVENTUALLY BECOMING THE “BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC” MANY HAVE CLAIMED CREDIT!

According to an 1890 account, the original John Brown lyrics were a collective effort by a group of Union soldiers who were referring both to the famous John Brown and also, humorously, to a Sergeant John Brown of their own battalion. Various other authors have published additional verses and/or claimed credit for originating the John Brown lyrics and tune.

At a flag-raising ceremony at Fort Warren, near Boston, on Sunday May 12, 1861, the John Brown song was publicly played “perhaps for the first time”. The American Civil War had begun the previous month.

Newspapers reported troops singing the song as they marched in the streets of Boston on July 18, 1861, and there were a “rash” of broadside printings of the song with substantially the same words as the undated John Brown Song! broadside, stated by Kimball to be the first published edition, and the broadside with music by C. S. Marsh copyrighted on July 16, 1861, also published by C.S. Hall . Other publishers also came out with versions of the John Brown Song and claimed copyright.

  • Some researchers have maintained that the tune’s roots go back to a “Negro folk song”, an African-American wedding song from Georgia
  • An African-American version was recorded as “We’ll hang Jeff Davis from a sour Apple Tree”.
  • Anecdotes indicate that versions of “Say, Brothers” were sung as part of African American ring shouts; appearance of the hymn in this call-and-response setting with singing, clapping, stomping, dancing, and extended ecstatic choruses may have given impetus to the development of the well known “Glory hallelujuah” chorus.
  • Given that the tune was developed in an oral tradition, it is impossible to say for certain which of these influences may have played a specific role in the creation of this tune 

The tune was later also used for “The Battle Hymn of the Republic (written in November 1861, published in February 1862; this song was directly inspired by “John Brown’s Body”), “Marching Song of the First Arkansas,” “The Battle Hymn of Cooperation,” “Bummers, Come and Meet Us” , and many other related texts and knock-offs during and immediately after the American Civil War period.

SOURCES: George Kimball, “Origin of the John Brown Song”, New England Magazine, new series 1 (1890) , Blood on the Risers From Wikipedia, James Fuld, 2000 The Book of World-Famous Music: Classical, Popular, and Folk Courier Dover, Pg 32.