Courtesy of Library of Congress, "John Brown's Body," 1861 (Document) / J. Weldon Norris Chorale, "John Brown's Body," Washington, D.C., 2003 (Audio)
"John Brown's Body" Song, 1861
Great songs sometimes seem to have a life of their own and survive by adapting to changing times and sensibilities. The song we now know as "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" has endured for more than 150 years and during that time underwent several dramatic changes in personality, as different writers and singers adapted it to meet their needs. The original version was a religious camp meeting song written in the 1850s. A new version appeared that used the old tune for a more militant cause. When the abolitionist John Brown was executed in 1859, a new, fiercer set of lyrics was created and the song now declared that "John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave. His soul is marching on!" By the time the Civil War began in 1861, the John Brown version of the song had spread throughout the Union army. Soldiers added new verses as they marched through the South, including one that promised to hang Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, from a tree. Meanwhile, Confederate soldiers answered back with their own version, which John Brown was hanging from a tree. The version known today was adapted by abolitionist author, Julia Ward Howe, who overheard Union troops singing "John Brown's Body." Within a year, the new lyrics were being sung by civilians in the north, Union troops on the march and even prisoners of war held in Confederate jails.
- How do you think the lyrics of the John Brown version of this song inspired Union soldiers? Cite at least three specific lines to support your answer.
- According to the lyrics, who was John Brown fighting for?