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Feb 16, 2021

John Brown’s Body

Who taught me “John Brown’s Body?”  I don’t remember but I loved to sing it.  I had no idea who John Brown was or what the song was about but I was drawn to it partly for it macabre ghoulishness – a body moldering in the grave! – and partly because it was forbidden around my house.  When my Aunt May was coming to visit – and it seemed she was always coming to visit – I was not to sing that song.  Or even to hum it.   This wasn’t the only thing I was supposed to remember when Aunt May came over.

May was my father’s much older half-sister – the picture of a Southern dowager.  She had powdery pink cheeks and swirl of white hair piled on top of her head, every strand sprayed firmly in place.  With her strong gardenia perfume and her swooping Tidewater accent, she filled every room she entered.  She had strict notions of decorum that I did not care to have applied to me. I always hoped to escape her notice and mostly I succeeded.  But my father was constantly on the lookout lest my behavior offend her.  

It’s not surprising that May would likely have been affronted to hear a member of her family singing “John Brown’s Body.”  The song was written to commemorate Brown’s famous raid  at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, on a mission to take over the U.S. Arsenal and initiate a slave revolt.

The raid failed, as it was bound to.  Brown was captured by the U.S. Army Colonel Robert E. Lee, and hanged by the state of Virginia in 1859.  On the day of his hanging, he wrote, “I . . . am, now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with Blood.”* Three years later the country was at war and the Union Army was marching through the streets of Boston singing “John Brown’s Body” – by then something of an abolitionist anthem.   

What to think about John Brown?  There’s no question that his audacious invasion of Harpers Ferry and his subsequent execution helped ignite the Civil War.  Yet his raid was underprepared and beyond foolhardy and numbers of his followers of both races lost their lives.  One of the dead was his own son.  Reading Midnight Rising, Tony Horwitz’s book about John Brown, I started taking down the adjectives Horwitz uses to describe his subject:  domineering, grandiose, zealous, obstinate, righteous, fanatical, blustering, unflinching, brazen, unbending, outrageous, outlandish.

John Brown’s raid was the focus of Tony Horwitz’s 2011 book, Midnight Rising.

All those qualities and more are given their due in The Good Lord Bird, James McBride’s brilliant comic novel about John Brown, which won the National Book Award for fiction in 2013.  Narrated by a child follower of Brown’s, a cross-dressing 12-year-old boy named Onion, The Good Lord Bird takes a dire episode in American history, one that’s generally treated with extreme solemnity, and milks it for its droll aspects, based on the off-center perceptions of a minor player.  

I love Onion:  he’s an anti-heroic character who sees all that is nuts about John Brown and his messianic crusade, and who skewers his self-appointed sainthood.  But in the end  McBride and Onion give John Brown his due as someone who did influence the national story in the right direction.  (A mini-series based on The Good Lord Bird, starring Ethan Hawke as John Brown was broadcast on Showtime in the fall.)

Would I have supported John Brown’s plans had I been in one of the abolitionist audiences during his pre-Harpers Ferry fund-raising swing through the North? Probably I would have agreed with Frederic Douglass, who, as McBride describes it, admired Brown but thought his plans to launch raids to free slaves would do the cause more harm than good.

James McBride’s comic novel about John Brown won the National Book Award for fiction in 2014.

In addition to writing novels, James McBride is also a jazz musician, and on his book tour he was accompanied by The Good Lord Bird Band, a quintet that performed spirituals and classic gospel songs. At the close of McBride’s reading at the New York Public Library, the quintet broke into a dirge-like rendition of “John Brown’s Body.”  As the audience slowly filed out of the Celeste Bartos Forum, I and many around me, were in tears.  As I was again, listening to actor David Strathairn perform John Brown’s last speech.

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