Mark Steyn reviews the history of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and some closely related songs, among them "John Brown's Body," which apparently isn't (or wasn't) about the John Brown:
"By a strange quirk of history," wrote Irwin Silber, the great musicologist of Civil War folk songs, "'John Brown's Body' was not composed originally about the fiery Abolitionist at all. The namesake for the song, it turns out, was Sergeant John Brown, a Scotsman, a member of the Second Battalion, Boston Light Infantry Volunteer Militia." This group enlisted with the Twelfth Massachusetts Regiment and formed a glee club at Fort Warren in Boston. Brown was second tenor, and the subject of a lot of good-natured joshing, including a song about him mould'ring in his grave, which at that time had just one verse, plus chorus:
Glory, glory, hallelujah
Glory, glory, hallelujah…
They called it "The John Brown Song". On July 18th 1861, at a regimental march past the Old State House in Boston, the boys sang the song and the crowd assumed, reasonably enough, that it was inspired by the life of John Brown the Kansas abolitionist, not John Brown the Scots tenor….Later on, various other verses were written about the famous John Brown and the original John Brown found his comrades' musical tribute to him gradually annexed by the other guy.
Silber wasn't just a "great musicologist of Civil War folk songs," by the way: As editor of Sing Out!, he was one of the leading folk music commissars of the '60s, policing the genre's boundaries with all the energy of a Stalinist ideologue. (Which makes sense—he was a Stalinist ideologue.) Bob Dylan remembers him here. Later he helped launch a Leninoid group called Line of March, remembered here. All of which is irrelevant; I'm just tickled to see him popping up in a Mark Steyn column.