“John Brown's Body”

Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1861
Keywords: Civilwar Black(s) death execution memorial burial rebellion slavery
Found in: US(SE,MA)


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

Historical references

Same tune

Cross references



  1. BrownIII 378, "John Brown's Body" (1 text, mixed, plus two of the offshoot "Hang (John Brown/Jeff Davis) from a Sour Apple Tree")
  2. Doerflinger, pp. 72-73, "John Brown's Body" (1 text, 1 tune -- a curious sailor's version that mentions Brown only peripherally and replaces the "His soul goes marching on" with "Then it's hip, hip, hip, hurrah!")
  3. Hugill, pp. 442-443, "John Brown's Body" (1 text plus fragments of a German version, 1 tune)
  4. Silber-CivWar, p. 40, "John Brown's Body" (1 text, tune referenced)
  5. Huntington-Whalemen, pp. 158-160, "John Brown" (1 text, slightly modified by Huntington, 1 tune)
  6. Lomax-FSUSA 37, "John Brown's Body" (1 text, 1 tune)
  7. Lomax-ABFS, pp. 528-529, "John Brown's Body" (1 text, 1 tune)
  8. Arnett, pp. 84-85, "John Brown's Body" (1 text, 1 tune)
  9. PSeeger-AFB, p. 62, "John Brown's Body" (1 text, 1 tune)
  10. Silber-FSWB, p. 305, "John Brown's Body" (1 text)
  11. Fuld-WFM, p. 131, "Battle Hymn of the Republic (Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us? -- John Brown -- Glory Hallelujah -- John Brown's Baby Had a Cold upon His Chest")
  13. Roud #771
  14. BI, Doe072b