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For the reggae musical group, see John Brown's Body .

For the epic poem, see John Brown's Body

Original publication of the text of the John Brown Song, according to George Kimball, "Origin of the John Brown Song", New England Magazine, new series 1 (1890):371-76

According to George Kimball, the second publication of the John Brown Song and the first including both music and text, with music arranged by C.S.
Marsh, dated 1861.
See George Kimball, "Origin of the John Brown Song", New England Magazine, new series 1 (1890):371-76

Cover of an 1861 sheet music score for "John Brown's Song"

Sheet music for "Brave McClellan is Our Leader Now," with words by Mrs. M.A.
Kidder, set to the Glory Halleluah tune and also including "the famous John Brown's song," 1862

"Say, Brothers" from Hymn and Tune Book of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, Round Note Edition, Nashville, TN (1889, reprinted 1903).

"John Brown's Body" (originally known as "John Brown's Song") is a famous Union marching song of the American Civil War. The tune arose out of the folk hymn tradition of the American camp meeting movement of the 1800s. During the American Civil War the lyrics referenced Sergeant John Brown of the Second Battalion, Boston Light Infantry Volunteer Militia, a Boston based unit. Later, people mistakenly believed it referenced the abolitionist John Brown and later verses were added referencing him.

The "flavor of coarseness, possibly of irreverence" led many of the era to feel uncomfortable with the earliest "John Brown" lyrics. This in turn led to the creation of many variant versions of the text that aspired to a higher literary quality. The most famous of these is Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic," which was written when a friend suggested, "Why do you not write some good words for that stirring tune?"

History of the Tune

"Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us", the tune that eventually became associated with John Brown's Body and the Battle Hymn of the Republic, was formed in the American camp meeting circuit of the early to mid 1800s. In that atmosphere, where hymns were taught and learned by rote and a spontaneous and improvisatory element was prized, both tunes and words changed and adapted in true folk music fashion:

Specialists in nineteenth-century American religious history describe camp meeting music as the creative product of participants who, when seized by the spirit of a particular sermon or prayer, would take lines from a preacher's text as a point of departure for a short, simple melody. The melody was either borrowed from a preexisting tune or made up on the spot. The line would be sung repeatedly, changing slightly each time, and shaped gradually into a stanza that could be learned easily by others and memorized quickly.

The written record of the tune can be traced as far back than 1858 to a book called The Union Harp and Revival Chorister, selected and arranged by Charles Dunbar, and published in Cincinnati. The book contains the words and music of a song "My Brother Will You Meet Me", with the music but not the words of the "Glory Hallelujah" chorus; and the opening line "Say my brother will you meet me". In December 1858 a Brooklyn Sunday school published a version called "Brothers, Will You Meet Us" with the words and music of the "Glory Hallelujah" chorus, and the opening line "Say, brothers will you meet us", under which title the song then became known. The hymn is often attributed to William Steffe, though the category of "composer" fits poorly into the camp meeting and oral folk tradition of the time. Steffe's role likely fell as transcriber and/or modifier of a commonly sung tune or text that had arisen through a folk tradition--or originator of a text and tune that was honed and modified by many others before reaching the forms best known today--as composer per se.

Robert W. Allen summarizes Steffe's own story of composing the tune, based on letters now found in the Kansas Historical Society--a story that confirms the flexible oral tradition in which "Say, Brothers" originated:
Steffe finally told the whole story of the writing of the song. He was asked to write it in 1855 or 56 for the Good Will Engine Company of Philadelphia. They used it as a song of welcome for the visiting Liberty Fire Company of Baltimore. The original verse for the song was "Say, Bummers, Will You Meet Us?" Someone else converted the "Say, Bummers" verse into the hymn "Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us." He thought he might be able to identify that person, but was never able to do so.

As with many similar tunes arising from an oral and folk tradition in this period and milieu, precisely tracing authorship is problematic. For instance, some sources list Thomas Brigham Bishop, Frank E. Jerome, and others as the tune's composer. As Steffe himself indicates, many others--known and unknown--undoubtedly did play a role in creating different versions of the hymn, modifying it, and disseminating it.

Some researchers have maintained that the tune's roots go back to a "Negro folk song" , an African-American wedding song from Georgia, or to a British sea shanty that originated as a Swedish drinking song. 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, but it is certain that numerous folk influences from different cultures such as these were prominent in the musical culture of the camp meeting, and that such influences were freely combined in the music-making that took place in the revival movement.

It has been suggested that "Say Brothers, Will You Meet Us", popular among Southern blacks, already had an anti-slavery sub-text, with its reference to "Canaan's happy shore" alluding to the idea of crossing the river to a happier place. If so, that sub-text that was considerably enhanced and expanded as the various John Brown lyrics took on themes related to the famous abolitionist and the American Civil War.

History of the Text of "John Brown's Body"

"Tiger" Battalion's Version

At a flag-raising 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 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 (see images displayed on this page). Other publishers also came out with versions of the John Brown Song and claimed copyright.

The Kimball Version of Authorship

In 1890, George Kimball wrote the story of how the 2nd Infantry Battalion of the Massachusetts militia, known as the "Tiger" Battalion, collectively worked out the lyrics to "John Brown's Body". Kimball wrote:
We had a jovial Scotchman in the battalion, named John Brown. . . . and as he happened to bear the identical name of the old hero of Harper's Ferry, he became at once the butt of his comrades. If he made his appearance a few minutes late among the working squad, or was a little tardy in falling into the company line, he was sure to be greeted with such expressions as "Come, old fellow, you ought to be at it if you are going to help us free the slaves"; or, "This can't be John Brown--why, John Brown is dead." And then some wag would add, in a solemn, drawling tone, as if it were his purpose to give particular emphasis to the fact that John Brown was really, actually dead: "Yes, yes, poor old John Brown is dead; his body lies mouldering in the grave."

According to Kimball, these sayings became by-words among the soldiers and, in a communal effort--similar in many ways to the spontaneous composition of camp meeting songs described above--were gradually put to the tune of "Say, Brothers":

Finally ditties composed of the most nonsensical, doggerel rhymes, setting for the fact that John Brown was dead and that his body was undergoing the process of dissolution, began to be sung to the music of the hymn above given. These ditties underwent various ramifications, until eventually the lines were reached,--

:"John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
::His soul's marching on."


:"He's gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord,
::His soul's marching on."

These lines seemed to give general satisfaction, the idea that Brown's soul was "marching on" receiving recognition at once as having a germ of inspiration in it. They were sung over and over again with a great deal of gusto, the "Glory hallelujah" chorus being always added.

Some leaders of the battalion, feeling the words were coarse and irreverent, tried to urge the adoption of more fitting lyrics, but to no avail. The lyrics were soon prepared for publication by members of the battalion, together with publisher C. S. Hall. They selected and polished verses they felt appropriate, and may even have enlisted the services of a local poet to help polish and create verses.

The official histories of the old First Artillery and of the 55th Artillery (1918) also record the Tiger Battalion's role in creating the John Brown Song, confirming the general thrust of Kimball's version with a few additional details.Frederick Morse Cutler, The old First Massachusetts coast artillery in war and peace, Pilgrim Press, Boston, 1917, p. 105-106 ( online via Google Books)Frederick Morse Cutler, The 55th artillery (C.A.C.) in the American expeditionary forces, France, 1918, Commonwealth Press, Worcester, Mass, 1920, p. 261ff ( online via Google Books)

Bishop's Claim of Authorship, Other Claims

Mainemarker songwriter, musician, band leader, and Union soldier Thomas Brigham Bishop (1835-1905) has also been credited as the originator of the John Brown Song. Bishop's biographer and friend James MacIntyre, in an interview with Time Magazine in 1935, stated that this version was first published by John Church of Cincinnati in 1861. Bishop, who would later command a company of black troops in the American Civil War, was in nearby Martinsburg when Brown was hanged at Charles Town in 1859 and, according to MacIntyre, Bishop wrote the first four verses of the song at the time. The "Jeff Davis" verse was added later when it caught on as a Union marching song. According to MacIntyre, Bishop's account was that he based the song on an earlier hymn he had written for, or in mockery of, a pious brother-in-law, taking from this earlier song the "glory hallelujah" chorus, the phrase "to be a soldier in the army of the Lord", and the tune. According to MacIntyre, this hymn became popular at religious meetings in Maine. The phrase "to be a soldier in the army of the Lord" is not found in any extant copies of "Say, Brothers"--either those published before or after 1860.

A number of other authors claimed to have taken part in the origin of the song. From the many different versions and variants of the text and music printed throughout the 1860s, it is clear that many different people had a hand in creating, modifying, singing, and publishing different versions of the text, which was in general associated with strong abolitionist sentiment. "Multiple authors, most of them anonymous, borrowed this tune [ie Say, Brothers], gave it new texts, and used it to hail Brown's terrorist war to abolish the centuries-old practice of slavery in America."

Creation of Other Versions

Once John Brown's Body became popular as a marching song, more literary versions of the John Brown lyrics were created for the John Brown tune. For example, William Weston Patton wrote his influential version in October 1861 which was published in the Chicago Tribune, 16 December of that year. The "Song of the First of Arkansas" was written, or written down, by Capt. Lindley Miller in 1864, although (typical of the confusion of authorship among the variants and versions) a text with that title is also attributed to Sojourner Truth. "The President’s Proclamation" was written by Edna Dean Proctor in 1863 on the occasion of the Emancipation Proclamation. Other versions include the "Marching song of the 4th Battalion of Rifles, 13th Reg., Massachusetts Volunteers" and the "Kriegslied der Division Blenker", written for the Blenker Division, a group of German soldiers who had participated in the European revolutions of 1848/49 and fought for the Union in the American Civil War.

Other related texts

The tune was later also used for "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" (written 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" (see facsimile), and many other related texts and knock-offs during and immediately after the American Civil War period.

The tune was also use for perhaps the most well known union song in the United States, Solidarity Forever. The song became an anthem of the Industrial Workers of the World and all unions that sought more than workplace consessions, but a world run by those who labor.

Sailors are known to have adapted "John Brown's Body" into a sea shanty - specifically, into a "Capstan Shanty", used during anchor-raising.Shanties from the seven seas: shipboard work-songs and songs used as work-songs from the great days of sail, Stan Hugill, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1961 ( online via Google Books)

The "John Brown" tune has proven popular for folk-created texts, with hundreds of knock-offs, parodies, and school-yard versions created over the years. The Burning of the School is a well-known parody. A version about a baby with a cold is often sung by school-age children. The "Baby" version includes sound effects and pantomime. A variant version of this was "John Brown's baby has a pimple on its bum", which was popular with First World War British soldiers, who spread it throughout the British Empire.

An African-American version was recorded as "We'll hang Jeff Davis from a sour Apple Tree". In Sri Lankamarker it was adapted into a bilingual (English and Sinhala song sung at cricket matches - notably at the Royal-Thomian, with the lyrics "We'll hang all the Thomians on the cadju-puhulang tree...". Another adaptation sung at the annual match between the Colombo Law and Medical colleges went "Liquor arsenalis and the cannabis indica...". This was adapted into a trilingual song by Sooty Banda.

Yodobashi Camera (ヨドバシ・カメラ, a Japanese media shop chain) uses the same song (with different words) as shop jingle repeated indefinitely during the opening hours of all shops. The text of the jingle mainly shows how to reach the main shops and which products are sold in them.


The lyrics generally show an increase in complexity and syllable count as they move from simple, orally-transmitted camp meeting song, to an orally composed marching song, to more consciously literary versions.

The increasing syllable count led to an ever-increasing number of dotted rhythms in the melody to accommodate the increased number of syllables. The result is that the verse and chorus, which were musically identical in the "Say, Brothers", became quite distinct rhythmically in "John Brown's Body", and even more so in the more elaborate versions of the "John Brown Song" and in the "Battle Hymn of the Republic".

Say, Brothers

(1st verse)
Say, brothers, will you meet us (3x)
On Canaan's happy shore.

Glory, glory, hallelujah (3x)
For ever, evermore!

(2nd verse)
By the grace of God we'll meet you (3x)
Where parting is no more.

(3rd verse)
Jesus lives and reigns forever (3x)
On Canaan's happy shore.

John Brown's Body

John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave; (3X)
His soul's marching on!

:Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah!
:Glory, glory, hallelujah! his soul's marching on!

He's gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord! (3X)
His soul's marching on!


John Brown's knapsack is strapped upon his back! (3X)
His soul's marching on!


His pet lambs will meet him on the way; (3X)
They go marching on!


They will hang Jeff Davis to a sour apple tree! (3X)
As they march along!


Now, three rousing cheers for the Union; (3X)
As we are marching on!

(From the Library of Congressmarker:)

The version by William Weston Patton::
Old John Brown’s body lies moldering in the grave,
While weep the sons of bondage whom he ventured all to save;
But tho 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, tho 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 thru and thru;
They hung him for a traitor, they 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 thruout 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

Further reading

  • Scholes, Percy A. (1955). "John Brown's Body", The Oxford Companion of Music. Ninth edition. London: Oxford University Press.
  • Stutler, Boyd B. (1960). Glory, Glory, Hallelujah! The Story of "John Brown's Body" and "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Cincinnati: The C. J. Krehbiel Co.
  • Vowell, Sarah. (2005). "John Brown's Body," in The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad. Ed. by Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus. New York: W. W. Norton.



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