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More About "John Brown's Body"

This page was written and is copyrighted by Brent Hugh and used with his permission.

This page has selected verses from various texts sung to the tune best known today as "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Most of these songs have many more verses than are printed here. In the case of the marching songs ("John Brown's Body"), many of the best verses were never published, or even written down. But the verses quoted will give you a good idea of the flavor of each version of the song.

A Brief History of "John Brown's Body"

Many interesting changes came over this tune and the words associated with it, as the tune moved from being an obscure southern camp meeting song to one of the best-known tunes of the American Civil War. Note especially the gradual transformation of the simple, straightforward, folk texts of the early versions ("Say, Brothers" and "John Brown's Body") to a more consciously literary and "poetic" style of writing in the later versions. Along with this move towards literary "quality" goes an increasing number of words per verse and an increasing complexity of word and idea.

As various versions "John Brown's Body" swept through the Union Army, however, more than the simple folk style of the original was lost. A marching song with a huge number of spontaneously composed verses, "John Brown's Body" was originally full of good-natured fun, humor, irony, and clever double meanings. The words were inspired by a runty sergeant in the Union Army who happened to have the same name--John Brown--as the famous abolitionist who had been killed a few years earlier.

As the simple marching song became popular and was published, this vigorous folk humor was pruned back, eventually to be forgotten. Most who sung "John Brown's Body," even in Civil War times, assumed that "John Brown's body lies a-moulderin' in the grave" was some sort of strangely-worded tribute to the famous John Brown, never imagining that the "soul" that went "marching on" was not that of the fierce, bearded abolitionist at all, but rather that of an undersized Union Army sergeant in an oversized backpack.

See below for further notes explaining the earthy and often irreverent humor of "John Brown's Body." The transformation of this humorous marching song into our "National Hymn" ("Battle Hymn of the Republic"), a serious work with real religious feeling but also a few strange echoes of its less-serious predecessor, is a story with a few ironic twists of its own.

Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us (William Steffe, 1858)
A Methodist Camping Meeting Song

Say, brothers will you meet us (3x)
On Canaan's happy shore.

Glory, glory, hallelujah (3x)
For ever, evermore!

John Brown’s Body (1861)
The original "John Brown Song" that inspired all the rest. A marching song, spontaneously composed, which derived its humor from the fact that a certain little Union Army sergeant had the same name as the infamous abolitionist John Brown.

John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave (3x)
But his soul goes marching on.

Glory, glory, hallelujah (3x)
His soul goes marching on.

The humor in this verse comes partly from the fact that the abolitionist John Brown was fiercely larger-than-life, awe-inspiring in person and reputation. By contrast, "his soul" that goes marching on (our Union Army sergeant of the same name) is a little runty guy who wouldn't scare anybody and in fact has a hard time even keeping his backpack on.

The phrase "lies a-mouldering in the grave"--mysterious to most who have sung these words, especially as the phrase in context of the tune seems to suggest a certain flippancy--is part of this humorously exaggerated contrast between the famous John Brown, who, as everyone knows, is extremely dead, and the runty John Brown, who still looked pretty lively to his fellow soldiers.

He’s gone to be a soldier in the Army of the Lord (3x)
His soul goes marching on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah (3x)
His soul goes marching on.

Union Army chaplains often referred to the Union Army as "The Army of the Lord"--again giving this verse a humorous double meaning.

The refrain, with its "Glory, glory, hallelujah" seems at first glance to fit quite nicely with the tune's earlier use as a camp meeting song--and the soldiers had heard this tune originally in that religious context. But since "His soul goes marching on" is the punchline to the joke, it turns the whole thing inside-out--now it's a mock-religious song, which only adds to the fun.

Notice that this humorous punchline is echoed in "Battle Hymn of the Republic"; there it becomes "His truth is marching on." The good-natured parody of the soldiers has been anti-parodied--and the tune gone full circle from serious, religious song ("Say, Brothers") to parody ("John Brown's Body") back to serious, religious song ("Battle Hymn"). What is surprising about this is that Julia Ward Howe apparently did not know the "Say, Brothers." She was simply writing a "serious" and more "fitting" version of "John Brown's Body"--which is to say, she really was writing an anti-parody.

We'll feed old Jeff Davis sour apples (3x)
'til he gets the diarhee.


We'll hang old Jeff Davis (3x)
from a sour apple tree.


"We'll feed old Jeff Davis sour apples/'til he gets the diarhee" was the original version. In published versions, this verse was changed to "We'll hang old Jeff Davis/from a sour apple tree"--public discussion of diarrhea being socially unacceptable at that time. Note that the more socially acceptable replacement verse is not only more vindictive, but--even worse!--totally humorless.

The John Brown Song (1861)
Another marching song inspired by the original "John Brown's Body."

Old John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
While weep the sons of bondage whom he ventured all to save;
But though he lost his life in struggling for the slave,
His truth is marching on.

Note that the phrase "John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave" has already--in less than one year--lost its humorous meaning, and is now taken quite seriously. Removing the three-fold repetition of this phrase makes it seem less flippant and more serious, besides leaving room for a sermon in the other two lines.

Glory, Glory, hallelujah! (3x)
His Truth is marching on.
He captured Harper’s Ferry with his nineteen men so few,
And he frightened "Old Virginny" till she trembled through and through,
They hung him for a traitor, themselves a traitor crew,
But his truth is marching on.

Glory, Glory, hallelujah! (3x)
His Truth is marching on.

Marching Song of the First Arkansas Regiment (Capt. Lindley Miller, 1863)
The marching song of one of the many African-American Regiments fighting for the Union Army.

Oh, we’re the bully soldiers of the "First of Arkansas,"
We are fighting for the Union, we are fighting for the law,
We can hit a Rebel further than a white man ever saw,
As we go marching on. Glory, glory, hallelujah (3x)
As we go marching on.

The President’s Proclamation (Edna Dean Proctor, 1863)
With roots, again, in the original "John Brown's Body," this version was written on the occasion of the Emancipation Proclamation.

John Brown died on a scaffold for the slave;
Dark was the hour when we dug his hallowed grave;
Now God avenges the life he gladly gave,
Freedom reigns today!

Note that, in true collaborative fashion, this verse collapses many of the ideas--scattered over many verses--found in early versions of "John Brown's Body":

  • John Brown
  • scaffold (first it was Jeff Davis who was hung; later John Brown)
  • he died for the slave
  • his grave (now it's "hallowed" instead of "mouldering")
  • The idea that although he himself is dead, "his soul goes marching on." Originally conceived as humor, there's nothing humorous about it now--it's God's vengeance.

Glory, glory, hallelujah! (3x)
Freedom reigns today!

The Battle Hymn of the Republic (Julia Ward Howe, December 1861)
Written after Howe heard "John Brown's Body" at a military parade and was asked to write more "fitting" words for the tune. Anti-parody at its finest.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword,
His truth is marching on.

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! (3x)
His truth is marching on.

"Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us" is from the Hymn and Tune book of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, Round Note Edition (Nashville, TN: Publishing House of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1889). All other texts are found in "John Brown’s Body," Sing Out: The Folk Song Magazine 36, no. 3 (Nov.-Dec. 1991/Jan. 1992): 10-11.7

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