In stirring cadences, the story of anti-slavery zealot John Brown's death is told: "John Brown's body lies a-mould'ring in his grave (x3); his soul goes marching on." "He captured Harper's Ferry with his nineteen men so true...."
The well-known tune of this piece, "Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us," is often credited to William Steffe, but I know of no absolute proof of this. The "John Brown" words were composed within months of the anti-slavery crusader's death, and had spread throughout the Union by the early stages of the Civil War. (Note that Huntington has a version from 1861!) - RBW
John Uhlemann reports that the tune has been traced from a 17th century Swedish Lutheran hymnal, and that it has also entered folk tradition in Hungary, presumably independently of its American associations. - PJS
I have seen it argued that the "John Brown" of the song was not the abolitionist but an obscure American soldier (Irwin Silber describes him as "Sergeant John Brown, a Scotsman, a member of the Second Battalion, Boston Light Infantry Volunteer Militia," who later joined the Twelfth Massachusetts). I suppose this is possible -- but everyone interpreted it to mean the fanatic who captured Harper's Ferry. - RBW