Music as Memory: Spirituals, Minstrelsy, and Marching Songs during the Age of Abolitionism


"John Brown's original marching song" (Philadelphia, n.d.): song sheet.

"John Brown's Body" originated as the spiritual "Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us," which circulated in Southern camp meetings in the early nineteenth century. The hymn's first known publication, in an 1807 North Carolina hymnbook, suggests that slaves created the hymn, for it appears in a call-and-response format and eyewitnesses described slaves singing it in a ring shout. These structures were African traditions. In April 1861 soldiers of the Second Battalion ("The Tigers"), stationed at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor, created new lyrics for the tune. One recruit was a Scottish immigrant named John Brown, whose comrades needled him for his illustrious name. "This cannot be John Brown," they sang. "John Brown is dead." Another soldier intoned, "His body lies mouldering in the grave." Soon five stanzas were created, and in the summer of 1861 the Boston abolitionist C. S. Hall published the "John Brown Song," which became one of the most popular songs in the Union army.

p American broadsides 464 – No source, no date.