John Brown's body lies a mouldrin' in the grave

 Various Versions of the John Brown Song
Spanning More Than a Century

Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us.

This song was first published in 1858 in the "Lee Avenue Casket." Its melody is now thought to be the work of William Steffe, an insurance salesman from Philadelphia. I have seen many references to Steffe being from the South, particularly the cities of Baltimore, Maryland; Richmond, Virginia; and Charleston, South Carolina. The real William Steffe lived all his life in Philadelphia, and probably only left the city during the Civil War when he carried dispatches for General Benjamin Butler. For more information on this topic, see the pages on Steffe found on this web site.

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

Chorus: Glory, glory, hallelujah, (3x)
For ever, evermore.

By the grace of God we’ll meet you, (3x)
Where parting is no more. Chorus.

Jesus lives and reigns for ever, (3x)
On Canaan’s happy shore. Chorus.

John Brown Song!

Fort Warren Version

Soldiers in the Second Battalion, Boston Light Infantry, (a.k.a. the "Tiger" Battalion) were stationed at Fort Warren on George’s Island in Boston’s outer harbor at the beginning of the Civil War. Since the Fort had only recently been completed and there was still a lot of debris on the parade ground, they were set to work cleaning up. Two Maine recruits sang a simple song as they worked called "Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us." Harry Hallgreen of the Tigers picked up the song and taught it to other members of his battalion. Among the Tigers was a certain Sergeant John Brown who came in for a lot of ribbing because he had the same name as the man who had been executed at Charlestown, Virginia, for trying to cause a slave revolt. Eventually Hallgreen invented a new line for the ‘Say, Brothers" song to spoof the lively activities of Sergeant Brown: "John Brown’s body lies a mouldering in the grave." Another member of the Tigers, James Greenleaf, added the tag line: "His soul’s marching on!" More verses were added later.

John Brown’s body lies a mouldering in the grave, (3x)
His soul’s marching on!

Chorus: Glory, glory, hallelujah, (3x)
His soul’s marching on!

He’s gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord, (3x)
His soul’s marching on! Chorus.

John Brown’s knapsack is strapped upon his back—(3x)
His soul’s marching on! Chorus.

His pet lambs will meet him on the way—(3x)
They go marching on! Chorus.

They will hang Jeff Davis to a tree! (3x)
As they go marching on! Chorus.

Now three rousing cheers for the Union! (3x)
As we are marching on!

Chorus: Glory, glory, hallelujah, (3x)
Hip, Hip, Hip, Hip, Hurrah!

Note: In time, more verses were added and others were altered. One later version included a verse from a song about John Brown created by Massachusetts soldiers stationed at Fort Monroe: "The stars of heaven are looking kindly down / On the grave of Old John Brown." The verse about hanging Jeff Davis to a tree eventually was transformed into the more familiar "We’ll hang Jeff Davis to a sour apple tree," but there is some controversy about how this verse reached its final form. Around 1885, George A. Huron, a prominent attorney in Topeka, Kansas, who had fought in the 7th Indiana during the Civil War, claimed that he invented the verse in the spring of 1862 during a campaign against Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley. (Complete correspondence on the subject is available from the Kansas Historical Society.) According to Huron, the soldiers in his division had been marching for some time singing "John Brown’s body lies a moulderin’ in the grave." He suggested they give John Brown a rest and sing about hanging Jeff Davis "to a sour apple tree." He claims that he based the verse on an old song from his childhood, "A sick monkey in a sour apple tree." Thomas McGuire, Lieutenant of Battery F, 2nd U.S. Artillery stationed in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, disputed the claim, saying that he had heard the exact same verse while a prisoner of war in Richmond, Virginia, in the fall of 1861. Since there is no way to verify any of these claims, the matter remains in doubt.

John Brown by Rev. William W. Patton written in October 1861

This is a variant of the Tiger Battalion’s song which first appeared in the Chicago Tribune on December 16, 1861. Patton was pastor of the First Congregational Church in Chicago during the Civil War, and later served as president of Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Old John Brown’s body lies moldering in the grave,
While weep the sons of bondage whom he ventured all to save;
But tho he lost his life while struggling for the slave,
His soul is marching on.

John Brown was a hero, undaunted, true and brave,
And Kansas knows his valor when he fought her rights to save;
Now, tho the grass grows green above his grave,
His soul is marching on.

He captured Harper’s Ferry, with his nineteen men so few,
And frightened "Old Virginny" till she trembled thru and thru;
They hung him for a traitor, themselves the traitor crew,
But his soul is marching on.

John Brown was John the Baptist of the Christ we are to see,
Christ who of the bondmen shall the Liberator be,
And soon thruout the Sunny South the slaves shall all be free,
For his soul is marching on.

The conflict that he heralded he looks from heaven to view,
On the army of the Union with its flag red, white and blue.
And heaven shall ring with anthems o’er the deed they mean to do,
For his soul is marching on.

Ye soldiers of Freedom, then strike, while strike ye may,
The death blow of oppression in a better time and way,
For the dawn of old John Brown has brightened into day,
And his soul is marching on.

The President’s Proclamation by Edna Dean Proctor, 1863

This poem was written in honor of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, but Proctor gave Lincoln the short end of the stick. While John Brown is mentioned by name nine times, the president is only referred to once in verse two as "our noble Ruler."

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!

John Brown sowed and his harvesters are we;
Honor to him who has made the bondsman free;
Loved evermore shall our noble Ruler be;
Freedom reigns today!

John Brown’s body lies mouldering in the grave;
Bright o’er the sod let the starry banner wave;
Lo, for the millions he periled all to save.
Freedom reigns today!

John Brown lives, we are gaining on our foes;
Right shall be victor, whatever may oppose—
Fresh thru the darkness the word of warning blows.
Freedom reigns today!

John Brown’s soul thru the world is marching on;
Hail to the hour when oppression shall be gone;
All men will sing, in the better age’s dawn.
Freedom reigns today!

John Brown dwells where the battle strife is o’er;
Hate cannot harm him, nor sorrow stir him more;
Earth will remember the crown of thorns he wore,
Freedom reigns today!

John Brown’s body lies mouldering in the grave;
John Brown lives in the triumphs of the brave;
John Brown’s soul not a higher joy can crave;
Freedom reigns today!

Move on Over by Len Chandler (circa 1963?)

More than a century after the first appearance of the Tiger Battalion’s song about John Brown, Len Chandler wrote this song which brings John Brown into the turbulent era of the 60’s with its freedom riders, organized protests, and voter registration drives in African American communities.

Mine eyes have seen injustice in each city, town and state
Your jails are filled with black men and your courts are white with hate
And with every bid for freedom someone whispers to us wait
That’s why we keep marching on.

Chorus: Move on over or we’ll move on over you (3x)
And the movement’s moving on.

You conspire to keep us silent in the field and in the slum
You promise us the vote then sing us We Shall Overcome
But John Brown knew what freedom was and died to win us some
That’s why we keep marching on.

It is you who are subversive, you’re the killer of the dream
In a savage world of bandits it is you who are extreme.
You never take your earmuffs off nor listen when we scream
That’s why we keep marching on.

I declare my independence from the fool and from the knave
I declare my independence from the coward and the slave
I declare that I will fight for right and fear no jail nor grave
That’s why we keep marching on.

Many noble dreams are dreamed by small and voiceless men
Many noble deeds are done the righteous to defend
We’re here today, John Brown, to say we’ll triumph in the end
That’s why we keep marching on.

Home | Julia Ward | Battle Hymn

Chaplain McCabeWho Wrote This Tune?

Copyright © 2000 by Robert Willis Allen