Nightly Song
Musings on Songs that Strike a Chord Tonight

A Memorial Day Song: John Brown

Written and Performed by Bob Dylan. You can hear a live version here. You can find the lyrics here.

“John Brown” makes a fitting Memorial Day song, one to come after we sweep up from the parades and put away the speakers’ microphones, to remind of us of the deeply personal sacrifice made when our young go off to fight. And a song to make us think before asking one more soldier to pick up a weapon overseas.

It is a simple tale of a mother and son, one that unfurls under the vague memories of a “good old fashion world” as a mother sees her boy off to war and then returns to welcome him home. As she regales him  on her son’s departure, Mrs. Brown speaks for all of us. She hugs her son and says, “Oh son, you look so fine, I’m glad you’re a son of mine.” Wouldn’t we do the same as that proud mother,  

Tellin’ ev’ryone in the neighborhood:
“That’s my son that’s about to go, he’s a soldier now, you know”
She made well sure her neighbors understood

We love our sons and daughters, but what do we ask of our soldier sons and daughters? At its most basic, we ask them to go into battle and kill or be killed.  Why do we ask? For land? For oil? For geopolitics? For freedom? In Leonard Cohen’s “Story of Isaac,” he likens the leaders and parents who send their children to war with the sacrifice that Abraham would make of Isaac,

You who build these altars now
to sacrifice these children,
you must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision

In the more strident “Masters of War,” Dylan condemns the men (and it seems as if it is always men) who sit behind the desks and send others to war like the Chicken Hawks behind so much of our recent military incursions. “John Brown” operates on a much more human scale, one not made of policy and analysis, but tenderness and emotions. Dylan sings of a mother who loves her son, who hugs him and encourages him.

When he’s far from her embrace, when the fiery exhortations of the talking heads and the patriotic parades fade, what does John Brown feel,

“Oh, and I thought when I was there, God, what am I doing here?
I’m a-tryin’ to kill somebody or die tryin’”

No romance. No ambitions. Just survive. This is not an American scenario; it’s a human tragedy. For whom do our soldiers face, but other young men and women making their parents and nations proud:

“But the thing that scared me most was when my enemy came close
And I saw that his face looked just like mine”

War inalterably changes John Brown. Disfigured by bombs, his own mother does not recognize him:

Oh his face was all shot up and his hand was all blown off
And he wore a metal brace around his waist
He whispered kind of slow, in a voice she did not know
While she couldn’t even recognize his face!

On Memorial Day, the television stations will feature flags and parades. Every politician will offer a speech on the virtue of our warriors. We will pay fitting tribute to their sacrifice; we will fittingly praise their courage and bravery. All true, but we do not begin to know and cannot understand. Understanding evolves from relating experience to what we already know, but how can we know what is so foreign to us?

If we are to honor our veterans, let’s pay true respect, let’s value their lives and sacrifice. Let’s refuse to send them off to die in the name of some political theory, some plan hatched in a conference room in Washington where John Brown is but a bit in a spreadsheet. Drop the rhetoric, the bombast, the theories and ask, what battle is worth the los not of our men and women, but of our sons and daughters, of my son, my daughter?

****

Dylan wrote “John Brown” in 1962 and first performed it on October 15 of that year. He stopped playing it in the early sixties and it did not reappear in concert until 1987 and did not make it onto an officially released recording until the MTV Unplugged album recorded in 1994 and release in 1995. It subsequently appeared on the album Live at the Gaslight 1962.

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3 Responses to “A Memorial Day Song: John Brown”

  1. “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”
    Oh! Lord! Just like mine!

    Hopefully Bob realizes this song is about the Zionist brutalizing of the Palestinian people and consequently will not play there as he has been asked not to by Palestinian civil society.

  2. Memorial Day is about remembering soldiers who lost their lives. John Brown came back alive. Memorial Day is about helping and consoling the families of the soldiers that did not make it back alive. This song is a criticism of a soldier’s mother who glamorizes war for her own pride and selfish reasons. John Brown has a point and a purpose that it important to share and be heard, but it’s not the kind of song we should be singing to a victim’s family on a day like today.

    • I’m a big Bob Dylan fan, but I always get a llitte put off by the voice of a generation thing. At what point to we appreciate an artist for his or her achievements and not focus so much on the period they performed in?I think most people read Hemingway today because of his craftsmanship as a storyteller, not because he was the voice of the Lost Generation. that kind of stuff still gets some historical interest, but it’s not the overrriding factor in his continuing importance as a writer.Hopefully, Dylan will continue to be more and more apprreciated as a songwriter and musician and less as some sort of hippie touchstone. After all, once he got into his electric phase, most of his songs were less political and more inventive.


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