“I’ll be John Brown”: How America’s most patriotic song kinda started out as a pro-slavery tune
by Angela Perez
As a child in Washington County, that swampy primordial stretch of flat land in the northeast of North Carolina, I often heard my mother, my aunts, and my grandparents use the phrase “I’ll be John Brown” to express surprise and amazement, along with a twinge of disdain and a touch of judgement. They’d exclaim, “I’ll be John Browned” or “I’ll be John Brown” as a polite way to express “I’ll be damned.”
For example, if the preacher’s wife had on a short dress on Sunday, my grandmother might come home from church and say, “I’ll be John Brown if she won’t near-bout showing her you-know-what.” Or if my mother was truly baffled by a question and had no answer, she’d reply, “Hmmm…I’ll be John Browned if I know.”
My guess is that although they invoked John Brown’s name often, my family had no idea who the man was or how the expression came into being. Little did my dear, departed grandmother know that the phrase “I’ll be John Brown” is loaded with decades of painful and inspiring history linked to slavery in the U.S.
Recently, I got to thinking about this peculiar phrase I often heard uttered by my loved ones. I remember learning somewhere along the way in high school history (when I wasn’t shaving my legs in class or writing short romance narratives featuring me and whichever boy I was in love with at the moment) that Brown was a fierce abolitionist who led a failed and bloody insurrection against slavery at a federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia in 1859. With a band of 16 white men and 5 slaves, he captured the armory but was overpowered in just two days. At that time, his liberation efforts, the resulting trial, and his hanging were the talk of the nation.
These details are fairly well-known to any high-school student. But as I started doing more reading and research on John Brown, I learned what an important and polarizing figure he has been throughout American history, even into the present. In tracing the phrase “I’ll be John Browned,” I discovered in the book “Hatchet Jobs and Hardball: The Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang” there are references to the phrase being used in text as far back as 1869:
“John-Brown: v. ref to the hanging of John Brown, U.S. abolitionist (1800-59) Esp. So. To execute by hanging (now hist._ in phrase ‘be john-browned’ to be ‘hanged’ or damned.)”
With further digging, I went on discover the extent to which the name “John Brown” has affected the American psyche. During and after the Civil War, both pro-slavery and anti-slavery groups, newspapers, authors, etc. used the name of John Brown to promote their own agendas. He became a martyr and a hero for many in the North. The South spun the Harpers Ferry event cruelly and used its failure to drive home their belief that slavery must be preserved at all costs and that slaves were obviously happy with their circumstances. From then until even now, John Brown has been portrayed and promoted as a villain and a hero, as a terrorist and a savior. His actions and legacy have been points of reference for any number of movements and have continued to be.
In the South, John Brown’s spirit was decried as satanic in nature and that nature was the subject of many Southern songs in the 19th century. The song “John Brown’s Entrance into Hell,” written in 1863, “shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued…revealed the South’s bitterness over Brown, Lincoln, and the Republican Party. Brown was shown being greeted in hell by devils who sang joyful hymns, ‘For well they knew the lying thief, /Would make for them an honored chief.’ ” (from “The Tribunal: Responses to John Brown and the Harper s Ferry Raid” by John Stauffer)
Those John Brown songs
In learning of the 19th century songs written about John Brown, I decided to do a little digging to find some of the music influenced by him. According to author John Wirt, the song “John Brown’s Body” became a popular marching song among regiments of the Union Army (in Wirt’s book “Huey ‘Piano’ Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues”). “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was written by Julia Ward Howe, an American writer, using the music from the already popular song “John Brown’s Body.” The history of that song about John Brown is part of the history of one of our nation’s most patriotic songs. From the Library of Congress:
The original version [of Battle Hymn of the Republic] was a religious camp meeting song written in the 1850s and began “Say, brothers, will you meet us? On Canaan’s happy shore?” The song eventually spread to army posts, where its steady rhythm and catchy chorus made it a natural marching song.
Soon, though, a new version appeared that hitched the old tune to a more militant cause. When the abolitionist John Brown was executed in 1859, someone created a new, fiercer set of lyrics; the song now declared that “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave. His soul is marching on!”
By the time the Civil War began in 1861, the John Brown version of the song had spread throughout the Union army. Soldiers added new verses as they marched through the South, including one that promised to hang Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, from a tree. Meanwhile, Confederate soldiers answered back with their own version, in which John Brown was hanging from a tree.
The version that we know today came to be when an abolitionist author, Julia Ward Howe, overheard Union troops singing “John Brown’s Body” and was inspired to write a set of lyrics that dramatized the rightness of the Union cause. Within a year this new hymn was being sung by civilians in the North, Union troops on the march, and even prisoners of war held in Confederate jails.
The John Brown song was well-known during that time and children were taught it in school for decades after, apparently even in the South. One of those school children who heard it was Huey “Piano” Smith, born in 1934 in New Orleans. Smith is a black rhythm and blues artist often credited as a major influence on the development rock and roll during the mid-1900s. In 1958, ACE records released the album, “Havin’ a Good Time” which Smith recorded with his band The Clowns. On that record was the song, “Well, I’ll be John Brown.” In an interview reprinted by Wirt, Huey discusses how he came to write and record the song:
” ‘John Brown was a slave liberator,’ Huey explained. ‘We sang about him in grammar school…We know ‘John Brown’s Body,’ and people say, ‘I’ll be John Brown.’ Well, I use slangs and things like that. When you put music with words and things together, the songs just make themselves. And after you listen at it, it says something its own self, that you hadn’t planned.”
All this is to say, and to state the obvious, language and history in the South are as inextricably bound as anywhere else. But in the South, that intertwining involves a lot of painful and terrible history. With the phrase, “I’ll be John Browned,” epic moments across a century are bound up in a phrase. It’s heavy, man, very heavy. With words so weighed down with all that history, maybe that’s why we speak so slowly down here. I’ll be John Browned if I know.