Song of the Day: Pete Seeger “John Brown’s Body”

So in the new year I’m going to try to commit myself to a “Song of the Day” feature here at extracreditlifepoints.

Today’s song relates to what I’ve been teaching in my history class: Pete Seeger’s “John Brown’s Body.”

John Brown came to fame (and perhaps infamy) for his belief in racial equality, his willingness to use violence to back abolitionist efforts in Kansas, and most of all, his effort to provoke a slave uprising in the south, starting at the armory at Harper’s Ferry, VA. Brown was hated in the south and considered a traitor by many northerners, though he gradually became a hero to many, particularly slaves and black soldiers, who saw themselves as sharing something in common with a man willing to fight and die for the cause of ending slavery.

The song’s melody has its roots in the camp meetings of the 2nd Great Awakening, the Christian religious revival that spawned the abolitionist movement during the 1830 and helped create the modern definition of equality that we see today. This song’s first appearance is believed to have been in 1861, courtesy of the “Tiger” Battalion of Union soldiers in Massachusetts. Many believed the song to be crude on many levels (and perhaps felt more than a little uncomfortable when African Americans started singing it) and in 1862, Julia Ward Howe adapted the song into the Battle Hymn of the Republic that we know today.

And Hey! For kicks let’s pull a couple tracks here. From the great New Orleans singer, here’s John Boutte jazzy version of the Battle Hymn.

And in tribute to some of the great union battles of the past year, here’s Ralph Chaplin’s 1915 twist on the tune as performed by Utah Phillips.

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