The origin of "The John Brown Song."
It will be remembered the 2nd Battalion of Rifles, or "The Tigers" occupied Fort Warren, Boston Harbor on April 29. It was from this time that the famous "John Brown Song" developed. George Kimball of the "Tigers" explains.
GARRISON DUTY AT FORT WARREN.
In time of peace garrison duty is doubtless very dull music, but with a great war opening and events daily transpiring which excited their enthusiasm to the highest pitch, the 250 men of the Second Battalion of Infantry found life at Fort Warren exceedingly pleasant. The fort was comparatively new and had never before been occupied by troops. Piles of rubbish of every kind incumbered not only the spacious parade ground, but every casemate and every nook and corner was filled with it. So we set to work with a will to put our house in order and had manual labor galore. Twas interesting to see professional men, merchants, clerks and others as busy as bees with shovel and wheelbarrow and broom, while song and jest and heartiest laughter rose continually as an accompaniment.
It was out of these conditions that the famous "John Brown Song" sprang, and If the "Tigers' had done nothing else to help the cause of the Union, this song alone would have been sufficient to entitle them to gratitude, for it is impossible to overestimate the effect it had all through the war as an inspirational force upon the armies in the field. It was pre-eminently the song of the war, and was sung in camp and on the march with a heartiness and dash that I never saw equaled in the case of any other. It even invaded England after performing its mission in this country, and was almost as popular there as it had been here. Mr Richard Grant White, in 1886, said that the song had "a certain rhythm, or lilt, which seizes upon the memory and bewitches without always pleasing the ear," and that "the alternate jig and swing of the air caused it to stick in the uneducated ear as burs stick to a blackberry girl." As I said in my previous letter in The Journal, we had a soldier in the battalion named John Brown. We were ready to seize upon everything that promised fun, and so guyed Brown unmercifully because of his name. He was a jolly Scotchman and entered heartily into the nonsense.
There were many good singers among us, Brown himself being one. Then there were Newton J. Pernette, James H. Jenkins, Charles E. B. Edgerle,. James E Greenleaf, Gordon S. Brown, Louis N. Tucker, Caleb E. Niebuhr, Henry J. Hallgreen Brooks and many others that I do not now recall. We sang all the popular songs of the day and many favorite hymns.
I belonged to the Boston Young Men's Christian Association before my enlistment and boarded with L. P. Rowland, the Librarian, Rowland one day brought down fifty copies of The Melodeon, a collection of hymns compiled by the late Rev. J. W. Dadmun. I distributed these. One of the hymns in the book then very popular was – “Say. Brothers, Will You Meet Us.” The first verse was as follows:
“Say. brothers will you meet us,
Say, brothers, will you meet us,
Say, brothers, will you meet us,
On Canaan's happy shore.
Glory, glory, hallelujah,
Glory, glory, hallelujah.
Glory, glory, hallelujah.
For ever evermore.”
We sang this hymn a great deal, both while at work cleaning up rubbish and during the long evenings in barracks. As I have said, we often guyed our Scotch comrade on account of his suggestive name, and some of the wags finally hit upon the idea of making parodies in his honor (?) upon the above hymn, thinking, probably, that this might "rattle" him, but it didn't —he took it good-naturedly, as he did everything else, and even helped us along.
I cannot say whether any lines used at the fort eventually became parts of the song as sung by the army beyond "John Brown's body lies moldering in the grave," "He's gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord," and "We'll hang Jeff Davis to a sour apple tree," but am certain that these three did. We had to quicken the music of the hymn a bit to make it conform to our doggerel rhymes, but the grand old chorus was unchanged.
I have no copy now of "The Melodeon," but have "The Revivalist," a collection of hymns arranged and published by Mr. Joseph Hillman of Troy, N. Y., in 1872, and this contains "Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us."
It may seem odd that such prominence should be given to the statement that the old martyr had "joined the silent majority" and that his body was "moldering in the grave," but this came from frequent emphatic denials, playfully made, that our Scotch laddie was actually with us. We would say. "Why. you're dead," “Your body is moldering in the grave," etc., and from this kind of nonsense finally sprang the beginning of the song. Then it grew.
There was a germ of inspiration in the idea that John Brown "had gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord," and this, with the glorious chorus, together with the fact that the music was just right for a marching air, made it immensely popular. Major Newton and others thought that it would be better to commemorate the services of some distinguished soldier, and "Ellsworth's body" was tried, but it would not go.
Greenleaf was organist of a church in Charlestown, and he naturally had much to do with the early arrangement of the notes of the song. Mr. C. S. Hall, an acquaintance of Mr. Greenleaf, often visited the fort, and becoming interested in the song, he took hold with his friend to see what could be done with it. Mr. C. B. Marsh also helped, and the result was the composition of additional lines and the issue of the production as a penny ballad, on common printing paper, surrounded by a pretentious but inartistic border. It bore this imprint: "Published at 256 Main street, Charlestown, Mass."
Later, Mr. Hall issued a more elaborate copy, giving both words and music, and headed it with a cut of the national bird. It bore the words, "Origin. Fort Warren," and "Music arranged by C. B. Marsh." At the bottom was the imprint, as before, and a statement that it had been "Entered according to act of Congress in the year 1861, by C. S. Hall, in the Clerk's office of the District Court of Massachusetts." I have ascertained by inquiry of the Librarian of Congress that the date of this copyright was July 16. 1861.
Mr. Abram E. Cutter of Charlestown has well-preserved copies of each issue, the first of which he thinks he purchased directly from Mr. Hall.
When the song was growing fast, the Twelfth Regiment, raised by Fletcher Webster, came to the fort, and it took the men of that organization by storm, as indeed, it did every body of soldiers that ran up against it. Pernette, Edgerely, Brown, Jenkins and myself finally joined the Twelfth.
The Eleventh came to the fort, and later the Fourteenth (afterward First Heavy Artillery), and the song became popular with both these organizations. Everybody knows how later it spread throughout the army.
Poor John Brown, who bore our pleasantry so good naturedly, possessed the love and esteem of all his comrades. He found a watery grave in the Shenandoah River on the 6th of June, 1862, at Front Royal, Va. While on picket across the river, opposite the camp, the bridge was carried away by a sudden rise of the stream, and to save themselves from capture the detail tried to cross on a raft. The raft went to pieces, and Brown was drowned, the rest being rescued.
I have given the origin of this famous song somewhat in detail, because there has been so much needless discussion about it. Everybody who was in Fort Warren in 1861 and every Bostonian who remembers the opening of the war knows that it originated substantially as I have stated.