May 23, 2008

Take Five: Music About John Brown

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[From time to time Fire on the Mountain features, on Fridays, Take Five--a list of five cool things in some particular category. It's not supposed to be the only five, best five, top five or anything, just five items worthy of attention. The idea is you can chip in your own suggestions for the list in the comments sections below.]

I just learned, entirely by accident, about a great new piece of music about John Brown. I will be blogging about it in the next day or so, but in the meantime, I have taken the opportunity to revive the flagging Take Five franchise, by posting five cool musical tributes to the Old Man, to whom this country owes so much.


David Soldier—The Apotheosis Of John Brown

This is a cantata—that’s a classical music form, y’all, not a version of the macarena. That means that the trained human voice is privileged, and the chorale here is backed by a small baroque orchestra. (I personally did not catch much hint of Soldier’s background playing bass in Bo Diddley’s touring combo here.)

Nevertheless, and I write as one somewhat phobic about classical music, this is readily accessible. For starters, they’re singing in English, and Soldier provides the excellent Robbie McCauley to narrate and hold the piece together. The whole cantata runs 38 minutes, but is broken up into sections comfortably approximating the length of album cuts.

Mainly, though, Soldier benefits from having chosen to base his composition on incomparable source material—the writings of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a friend and admirer of John Brown, and a great writer. In fact, the closing song on the Magpie CD plugged below, draws from exactly the same well.

Magpie—John Brown: Sword Of The Spirit

This is a remarkable work, a composition in the folk music tradition that is in some ways similar one of those “rock operas” that started blighting the musical landscape in the late ‘60s. Only JB: SotS is a coherent work, musically and as a narrative, and it’s entirely about the 1859 raid on the US Arsenal in Harpers Ferry. Starting with their version of Si Kahn’s driving “Old John Brown,” they echo the new opera in using spirituals to set the stage.

Magpie, who are Terry Leonino and Greg Artzner (and have been so for something like 35 years), also include a Woody Guthrie number I’d never even heard of before, “The Ballad of Harriet Tubman.” Most of the other songs were written by the duo, who give musical shout-outs to each of the 19 men who joined the Old Man for the raid, with the songs about Shields Green, Dangerfield Newby and John Copeland particularly moving.

The thing I like most about it is that it is unapologetic. A deceptively simple song, taken from a story actually told by Brown’s daughter, “Pretty Little Bird” compares striking at the slaveocracy to killing a snake. Their friend Peggy Eyres’ “Mary Brown, Abolitionist” reclaims John Brown’s wife from both scholarly neglect and the picture too frequently painted of her as a passive victim beaten down by his unbending male fanaticism.

Over the years I’ve picked up several cases of this recording to sell on FRSO/OSCL literature tables, and given many to friends. I recommend it unequivocally, even if your musical tastes generally run louder and funkier than “singer/songwriter.” I don’t care. If you don’t have it, this should be the next CD you buy.

Paul Robeson--“John Brown’s Body”

I mean, I know there are other versions a-plenty, but how ya gonna leave Paul Robeson’s magnificent baritone out of this, even if the cut I’ve got only has a couple of verses, omitting both the earliest “folk” ones about hanging Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree’ and such favorites as

They hung him for a traitor,
Themselves the traitor crew.

The impact of the Harper’s Ferry raid is testified to by the fact that within two years, this song was sung universally in the Union Army and throughout the North. Itself derived from a camp meeting hymn called “Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us,” it was gussied up into “Battle Hymn Of The Republic” by abolitionist Julia Ward Howe, Subsequently Wobbly bard Ralph Chaplin kyped the tune for "Solidarity Forever." Truly a revolutionary song.

Mat Callahan & Yvonne Moore—“Old John Brown”

This has more than a title in common with the Si Kahn’s tune that Magpie covers. It, too, look at how the Harper’s Ferry raid broke the stasis of the slave system in the mid-1800s, using the music to convey a sense of power restrained and ready to erupt to underline its point. It closes with a reminder that Brown’s work is not complete.

A confession: I actually have Mat’s permission to post this song right here on FotM. I’d been sleeping on this post until I could figure out how to post music here, but the news of the John Brown opera premiere pushed me into premature action. Get me your email address and I’ll see that you get an MP3 of the sucker.

Rancid—"Meteor Of War"

I finish with this in part to atone for the length of some of the earlier choices. Tim Armstrong and crew bring this punk celebration of John Brown in at a brisk 1 minute 20 seconds. And they make the essential point, loud and fast. Twice (I told you it’s fast):

John Brown set the tone, he was a meteor in a guilty land.
Abolitionists understand freedom to the despondent man.

Your turn, dear reader. What John Brown cuts ring your chimes? (NB: Please limit it to cuts about this John Brown—no Dylan, no Masters Of Reality, no Huey “Piano” Smith, etc, eh?)

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