"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 late 1700s and early 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.
Early versions of "Say, Brothers" included variants, developed as part of this call-and-response hymn singing tradition such as:
This initial line was repeated three times and finished with the tag "On Canaan's happy shore."
The first choruses included lines such as
The familiar "Glory, glory, hallelujah" chorus—a notable feature of both the "John Brown Song", the "Battle Hymn of the Republic", and many other texts that used this tune—developed out of the oral camp meeting tradition some time between 1808 and the 1850s.
Folk hymns like "Say, Brothers" "circulated and evolved chiefly through oral tradition rather than through print. In print, the camp meeting song can be traced back as early as 1806-1808 when it was published in camp meeting song collections in South Carolina, Virginia, and Massachusetts.
The tune and variants of the "Say, brothers" hymn text were popular in southern camp meetings, with both African-American and white worshipers, throughout the early 1800s, spread predominantly through Methodist and Baptist camp meeting circuits. As the southern camp meeting circuit died down in the mid 1800s, the "Say, brothers" tune was incorporated into hymn and tune books and it was via this route that the tune became well known in the mid 1800s throughout the northern U.S. By 1861, "groups as disparate as Baptists, Mormons, Millerites, the American Sunday School Union, and the Sons of Temperance all claimed 'Say Brothers' as their own."
For example, in 1858 words and the tune were published in 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 hymn 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".
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. 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, 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.
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 (see images displayed on this page). Other publishers also came out with versions of the "John Brown Song" and claimed copyright.
In 1890, George Kimball wrote his account 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 is 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.
In hymnals and folks song collections, the hymn tune for "Say, Brothers" is often attributed to William Steffe. Robert W. Allen summarizes Steffe's own story of composing the tune:
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.
Though Steffe may have played a role in creating the "Say, Bummers" version of the song, which seems to be a variant of and owe a debt to both "Say, Brothers" and "John Brown", Steffe couldn't have written the "Glory Hallelujah" tune or the "Say, Brothers" text, both of which had been circulating for decades before his birth.
Maine songwriter, musician, band leader, and Union soldier Thomas Brigham Bishop (1835–1905) has also been credited as the originator of the John Brown Song, notably by promoter James MacIntyre in a 1916 book and 1935 interview. (Bishop also claimed to have written "Kitty Wells," "Shoo, Fly Don't Bother Me," and "When Johnny Comes Marching Home,"—and to have played a role in the composition of Swanee River.)
In the late 1800s, during the song's height of popularity, a number of other authors claimed to have played a part in the origin of the song. Some sources list Steffe, Bishop, Frank E. Jerome, and others as the tune's composer. Given the tune's use in the camp meeting circuits in the late 1700s and early 1800s and the first known publication dates of 1806–1808, long before most of these claimants were born, it is apparent that none of these authors composed the tune that was the basis of "Say, Brothers" and "John Brown".
As Annie J. Randall wrote, "Multiple authors, most of them anonymous, borrowed the tune from "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." This continual re-use and spontaneous adaptation of existing words and tunes is an important feature of the oral folk music tradition that "Say, Brothers" and the "John Brown Song" were embedded in and no one would have begrudged their use or re-use of these folk materials. Some of those who claimed to have composed the tune may have had a hand in creating and publishing some of the perfectly legitimate variants or alternate texts that used the tune—but all certainly wanted a share of the fame that came with being known as the author of this very well known tune.
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 similar text with the title "The Valiant Soldiers" 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 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" (see facsimile), and many other related texts and knock-offs during and immediately after the American Civil War period.
The World War II song, "Blood on the Risers", is set to the tune, and includes the chorus "Glory, glory (or Gory, gory), what a hell of a way to die/And he ain't gonna jump no more!"
The tune was also used for perhaps the most well known labor-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 concessions, 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.
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. An African-American version was recorded as "We'll hang Jeff Davis from a sour Apple Tree". In Sri Lanka 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.
Len Chandler sang a song called "move on over" to the tune on Pete Seeger's Rainbow Quest TV show.
The lyrics used with the "John Brown" tune 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—though still identical in melodic profile—in "John Brown's Body."
The trend towards ever more elaborate rhythmic variations of the original melody became even more pronounced in the later versions of the "John Brown Song" and in the "Battle Hymn of the Republic", which have far more words and syllables per verse than the early versions. The extra words and syllables are fit in by adding more dotted rhythms to the melody and by including four separate lines in each verse rather than repeating the first line three times. The result is that in these later versions the verse and the chorus became even more distinct rhythmically and poetically though still remaining identical in their underlying melodic profile.
Say, brothers, will you meet us (3x)
On Canaan's happy shore.
Glory, glory, hallelujah (3x)
For ever, evermore!
By the grace of God we'll meet you (3x)
Where parting is no more.
Jesus lives and reigns forever (3x)
On Canaan's happy shore.
John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave; (3X)
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 Congress:)
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.