Morning Song – John Brown’s Body
“John Brown’s Body” is one of those capacious songs created by anonymous thousands that continues to grow and evolve. The melody has its roots in the American camp meeting circuit of the late 1700s in the form of the revival song, “Say Brothers, Will You Meet Us”, itself drawn from sources as varied as a Negro wedding song from Georgia and a British sea shanty based on a Swedish drinking song.
It flowers during the Civil War, with dozens of verses written, sung and marched to by Union Army soldiers and their supporters—most famously abolitionist Julia Ward Howe, who fit the lyrics of “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic” to the song.
And it’s continued to spread its branches: “Solidarity Forever”, the most important labor song in US history, is based on “John Brown’s Body”; as is the WW II song, “Blood On The Risers”, a popular Sri Lankan cricket song, and the Passover song, “Don’t Sit On The Afikoman”.
I love this 1961 version by Milt Jackson and the Oscar Peterson Trio for its sly, jaunty, confident, soulful swing. They’re marching off to battle knowing they’ve got a secret weapon their opponent 1) doesn’t know about, 2) wouldn’t know what to do with if he had it, and 3) ultimately has no defense against.