Well, here we are at the 10th intersection and Bob Dylan has only just arrived. There is no way I’d have picked John Brown would be the first Dylan contribution to this musical trail. But here you go.
Dylan wrote this song in 1962, performed it in October 1962 at The Gaslight Cafe in New York … and then he put it away for many years. (Although he did record it for Broadside under the name Blind Boy Grunt – in fact it was Blind Boy’s recording debut).
It was 1987 when Dylan toured with The Grateful Dead that John Brown saw the light of day again. An inauspicious period for Dylan, their tour was not well received.
I first heard John Brown when I bought a second-hand copy of Dylan’s 1994 album MTV Unplugged – the only song on the album that I hadn’t heard before (though the other tracks had undergone some typical Dylan reinvention).
Then it appeared on The Bootleg Series Vol.9 – The Witmark Demos. Dylan stutters over one the verses but it’s just a stumble and he quickly recovers.
It is likely Mrs McGrath an early 19th Century Irish folk song was the antecedent for Dylan’s John Brown lyrics. Both songs relate the tale of a mother sending her son off to war and the son returning … ravaged. The melody could be an adaptation of 900 Miles – a great traditional song sometimes credited to Woody Guthrie and performed by many over the years including (the links take you to the songs on You Tube) Odetta, Richie Havens, Terry Callier, & Bethany & Rufus (a nice little link – Bethany Yarrow is the daughter of Peter from Peter, Paul, & Mary).
According to Robert Shelton, Roebuck “Pops” Staples – Mavis’ father – reckoned Dylan wrote John Brown for him. The Staples family had become tight with Dylan after Shelton introduced them at a gospel show in 1962.
Dylan was right in the middle of one of his most creative periods when John Brown was written. With the volume and quality of songs Dylan was churning out, it is not surprising this one was left behind for a long time.
But it still bites … starting with a mother so proud of her son carrying a gun, hoping for medals to pin on her wall, and finishing with the son, hardly recognised and unable to talk, dropping those same medals into his mother’s hand.
John Brown went off to war to fight on a foreign shore
His mama sure was proud of him!
“Oh son, you look so fine, I’m glad you’re a son of mine
You make me proud to know you hold a gun.
Do what the captain says, lots of medals you will get
And we’ll put them on the wall when you get home.”
But as he turned to go, he called his mother close
And he dropped his medals down into her hand.
Between the maternal ambition and its sad realisation, John Brown moves through frightening physical impacts and eternal questions about futility, identity (his & his enemy’s), and who is in control … .
Oh, and I thought when I was there, God, what am I doing here?
I’m a-tryin to kill somebody or die tryin’
But the thing that scared me most was when my enemy came close
And I saw that his face looked just like mine.
And I couldn’t help but think, through the thunder rolling and stink
That I was just a puppet in a play.
How does John Brown connect with And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda?
The damaged soldier returning home from battle.
Other Stuff You Might Enjoy.
* Bob Dylan and The Grateful Dead – Live in 1987 – John Brown. This version sounds more like Keep Your Eyes On The Prize (or Keep Your Hand On The Plow, Gospel Plow, Hold On … one of those).
And the next road takes us to?
This is a struggle, when I listen to Dylan it seems to scream for more Dylan, but …
North: Paths of Victory by Odetta
East: We just heard it … And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.
South: Mrs McGrath by Bruce Springsteen.
West: The Sinking Of The Reuben James by Woody Guthrie.