SAY, BROTHER, WHO WROTE THIS MELODY?
Music Historians Still Argue Over the Origins
Of One of the Union Army's Most Popular Songs
by Robert W. Allen
On Sunday, May 12, 1861, at Fort Warren on George's Island, Boston Harbor, members of the Second Battalion, Boston Light Infantry, and the slowly swelling ranks of the Twelfth Massachusetts gathered on the parade ground for a flag raising ceremony. Soldiers in the Second Battalion, also called the "Tiger" Battalion, had a special surprise prepared for the occasion, a new song based on a revival hymn, "Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us." After Reverend George Hepworth addressed the new inductees into the Union Army, William J. Martland's Brockton Band struck up the Tiger's tune, the soldiers singing along as best they could:
John Brown's body lies a-moulderin' in the grave.
His soul is marching on!
Since the moment when this controversial tune was first introduced to the world, music historians have been trying to identify the origins of the tune from which this song was derived. At first, Stephen C. Foster seemed a likely candidate for authorship. His song, "Ellen Bayne," bears a striking resemblance to "Say, Brothers," but unfortunately not enough of one to convince most experts in the field of American music history. Another composer had to be found.
The very earliest printings of the "Say, Brothers" verses appeared in 1858. The song was first copyrighted on November 27 of that year by G. S. Scofield in New York City. The following month, the song was printed in Our Monthly Casket, a publication of the Lee Avenue Sunday School in Brooklyn. This, however, does not settle the question of authorship of the song. A slightly earlier version appears in the 1958 printing of Charles Dunbar's Union Harp, published in Cincinnati with the title "Oh, my brothers, will you meet me?"
The process of identification of the actual composer has been further set back by the innumerable illegitimate claims to authorship. Most such claims can be easily dismissed. Frank E. Jerome, for example, wrote that he had written the words for a John Brown song in Leavenworth, Kansas, in June of 1861, one month after the "Tiger" Battalion first performed the song at Fort Warren. He further asserted that the tune he invented was based on the melody to "Run, Tell Aunt Susey," a tune which in no way resembles the "Say, Brothers" hymn. Thomas Brigham Bishop's claim, on the other hand, might be given more serious consideration were it not so absurd. According to his story, in 1858, he wrote verses for a song entitled "He's Gone to Be a Soldier in the Army of the Lord," one of the verses in the Fort Warren version of "John Brown's Body." Supposedly, in 1859, Bishop visited Harper's Ferry after John Brown's raid and wrote new verses to his "Army of the Lord" song, one of which was "John Brown's body lies a moulderin' in the grave." He later claimed to have written the words and music for "Kitty Wells," "Shoo, Fly, Don't Bother Me," and the tune for "When Johnny Comes Marching Home."
Some scholars have also put forth some very silly ideas concerning the origins of the tune. Take, for example, the theories of Boyd B. Stutler. He grew up in West Virginia where the people still sing the old version of the John Brown song: "Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us?" During his lifetime, he collected everything he could on the tune and its probable origin. But he also collected a lot of bad information that couldn't be verified. According to Stutler, the "Say, Brothers" tune came from Sweden, and was invented some time before the year 1700. The original verses were supposed to be "a drinking song relating the misadventures of a sailor in Limping Lotta's saloon...." He further claims that the tune became a hymn when Charles Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist Church, heard it in the streets of London. While music historian James J. Fuld was attempting to confirm Stutler's claim, he got in contact with some musicologists in Sweden and discovered that the tune, which they call "Broder Viljen I Ga Med Oss," made its first appearance in 1875, ten years after the Civil War!!! Fuld also stated that no tune similar to the John Brown song had ever been discovered among the many hymns written by Charles Wesley.
Wesley did frequently gather material from the strangest of sources to turn into hymn tunes. The most infamous story concerning this has to do with a song about Nancy Dawson, a girl who was a famous dancer during the reign of George II. According to the historical gossip mill, Wesley was holding one of his religious conversion meetings when some soldiers tried to break up the party by singing the Nancy Dawson Country Dance:
Of all the girls in our town,
The black, the fair, the red, the brown,
That dance and prance it up and down,
There's none like Nancy Dawson,
Her easy mein, her shape so neat,
She foots, she trips, she looks so sweet,
Her ev'ry motion's so complete,
I die for Nancy Dawson.
Wesley, not to be outdone, improvised a set of verses for the song on the spot:
Listed into the cause of sin
Why should a good be evil
Music, alas, too long has been
Pressed to obey the devil;
Drunken or lewd or light the lay
Flowed to the soul's undoing,
Widened and strewn with flowers the way
Down to eternal ruin.
He quickly taught the verses to his flock and put the soldiers completely at bay. The tune for the Nancy Dawson song is, of course, not the one used for John Brown, but a slightly more complex version of "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush."
A far more bizarre, though equally inaccurate, theory for the origin of the tune was published in a semi-ancient volume of arcane musical lore entitled History of American Music, edited by William Hubbard. This dusty tome contains the following paragraph:
Lieutenant Chandler, in writing of Sherman's March to the Sea, tells that when the troops were halted at Shady Dale, Georgia, the regimental band played 'John Brown's Body,' whereupon a number of negro girls coming from houses supposed to have been deserted, formed a circle around the band, and in a solemn and dignified manner danced to the tune. The negro girls, with faces grave and demeanor characteristic of having performed a ceremony of religious tenor, retired to their cabins. It was learned from the older negroes that this air, without any particular words to it, had long been known among them as the 'wedding tune.' They considered it a sort of voodoo air, which held within its strains a mysterious hold upon the young colored women, who had been taught that unless they danced when they heard it played they would be doomed to a life of spinsterhood.
"John Brown's Body" was originally a "voodoo air"?!! Such a notion can be highly seductive. One easily imagines an old African shaman, enslaved on a Georgia plantation, saying to his followers that they would become free if they offered their white owners the gift of a song. The song had to be their "Wedding Dance" with new words which, when sung, would slowly work their way into the thoughts and hearts of the white people until all the slaves of the South would be free. Through this magic song, a dead abolitionist, John Brown, was brought back to life (zombie fashion?), and a mighty army marched to this tune, bringing freedom to the long-suffering Africans.
An actual account of the Shady Dale incident, however, suggests a different interpretation of this story. On December 14, 1864, Michael R. Dresbach of Minnesota wrote to his wife: "At Shady Dale a large plantation about 35 miles West of Milledgeville there was 15 young Wenches came out and danced for every Regiment that passed the Brigade Band playing wile Each Brigade passed and the next one in turn taking its place. The way the[y] hoed down was caution and extremely ludicrous." There is no indication that the dancing girls of Shady Dale were performing rituals based on African superstitions. Neither is there anything to suggest that they were doing anything more than just entertaining the troops and celebrating their own liberation. As for Lt. Chandler, his name does not appear on the long lists of individuals writing personal narratives of Sherman's March to the Sea. The story of the African origin of "John Brown's Body" appears to be a misinterpretation of real events.
A far better claim for authorship was put forth in the late 19th century by a modest insurance salesman, William Steffe of Philadelphia. In 1885, Richard J. Hinton, one of John Brown's biographers, wrote to Steffe asking about the circumstances of the writing of the original song. Steffe's four replies are contained in the archives of the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka.
On December 11th, 1885, Steffe wrote: "...though I never claimed any notoriety in music I want to prove by the best evidence the origin of the music of the popular song. Those who prompted me to write it are all 'gathered to their fathers' most of those who sang Say Brothers will you meet us-- are 'beyond the river'...." In his second and third letters, mailed more than a year later, Steffe stated that he sent a copy of the song to Hinton, but that since the copy was not received, it must have gotten lost in the mail. Steffe said he had trouble remembering the circumstances of the writing and was apparently in contact with others in Philadelphia who were present and could have testified that Steffe wrote the song. But Steffe never gave Hinton any verification from these other persons. In the last letter dated March 4, 1887, Steffe finally told the whole story of the writing of the song. He was asked to write it in 1855 or 56 for the Good Will Engine Company of Philadelphia. They used it as a song of welcome for the visiting Liberty Fire Company of Baltimore. The original verse for the song was "Say, Bummers, Will You Meet Us?" Someone else converted the "Say, Bummers" verse into the hymn "Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us." He thought he might be able to identify that person, but was never able to do so. He also wrote that he had visited Boston during the Civil War while carrying dispatches from General Butler to Governor Andrew. While there, he attended a review of the "Tiger" Battalion. The "Tigers" sang "John Brown's Body," and, afterwards, Steffe told them he had originated the tune.
Steffe's modest claims are much easier to deal with than the bombastic claims of Bishop. First, William Steffe does not claim to have originated the "Say, Brothers" version, only the tune from which it was derived. Second, his claim does not collide, as does Bishop's, with the story of the creation of "John Brown's Body" at Fort Warren in the spring of 1861. But although Steffe's assertion that he created the tune is the best ever put forward, the evidence of the claim is still anecdotal and inconclusive. Who really wrote the tune that was used for "John Brown's Body" and later for Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic"? Perhaps we will never know for sure.
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Copyright © 2000 by Robert Willis Allen