John Brown : The poem
John Brown is an interesting anti-war lyric which describes the horrors of war and the ease with which young men find themselves trapped in one. The idea of being a hero in the battlefield is as tantalizing as it is fatal. This idea of heroism in often driven by a false sense of bravado and machismo which drives men to a situation where they find themselves “a-tryin kill somebody or die tryin“. It is too late when they discover that all the power and glory is nothing more than political puppetry where the strings are pulled by powerful, interested players. This aspect is further explored in the summary and analysis of John Brown in the section John Brown Summar and Analysis.
John Brown uses colloquial diction to interrogate the ideas of war, honour and masculinity and show what happens when people go to fight a ‘good old fashioned war‘.
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John Brown : Summary and Analysis
John Brown went off to war to fight on a foreign shore
His mama sure was proud of him
Hestood straight and tal in his uniform and all
His mama’s face broke out all in a grin
“Oh son, you look so fine, I’m glad you’re a son of mine
You make me proud to know you hold a can
Do what the captain says, lots of medals you will get
And we’ll put them on the wall when you come home”
This lyric opens with a certain John Brown going off to fight “a war on a foreign shore“. The name of the place of battle isn’t known. It isn’t even required anyway. A war is a war, wherever it maybe. Brown’s mother is happy to watch him hold a gun. She wants her son to bring home some medals which they can put up on the wall when he returns. That she is so sure of his return is indicative of either a motherly optimism for her son or a complete ignorance of the realities of war on her part. We come to know that the latter is actually the case by the time we reach the end.
The idea of ‘glory‘ and the embodiment of it in the form of the medal in the imagination of the mother (and a large group of people) is emphasized right in the beginning of the lyric. This must be kept in mind when the soldier speaks out towards the end against the very idea of ‘glory’ and its physical embodiment in the form of medal seems to be nothing more a piece of metal.
Stanzas 2- 3
As that old train pulled out, John’s ma began to shout
Tellin’ everyone in the neighbourhood
“That’s my son that’s about to go, he’s a
soldier now, you know”
She made well sure her neighbours
She got a letter once in a while and her
face broke into a smile
As she showed them to the people from
And she bragged about her son with his
uniform and gun
And these things you called a good old-fashioned war
Oh, good old-fashioned war!
Then the letters ceased to come,
for a long time they did not come
They ceased to come about ten months or more
Then a letter finally came saying,
“Go down and meet the train Your son’s
a-coming home from the war”
The son decides to fight the good old-fashioned war and his mum goes around telling everyone of her brave son. The romanticization of war and valour finds its expression in the mom’s treatment of the letter her son sends her. Not only does she treat the letter as a means of personal communication but also as a sign of his son’s valour and sacrifice – his red badge of courage. As often is the case, the letters cease to come and when she gets the message that her son has eventually returned, she rushes to meet him. At first she doesn’t see her son ( the readers know why) and is hardly able to believe her eyes when she does:
Oh his face was all shot up and his hand was all blown off
And he wore a metal brace around his
He whispered kind of slow, in a voice she did not know
While she couldn’t even recognise his face!
Oh, lord, not even his face!
“Oh tell me, my darling son, pray tell me what they done
How is it you come to be this way?”
He tried his best to talk but his mouth
could hardly move
And the mother had to turn her face away
The brutality of the war is all too evident. Dylan minces no words while providing the gruesome picture of a son whose “face is all blown up” and whose “hand is all blown off” and who has to wear a metal brace around his waist. The debilitating effects of the war and the long-term consequences of it is a sad reality which many war veterans have to deal with in their day-to-day lives after a good old-fashioned war. By the time John Brown returns, he has become a different man : one who is thoroughly disillusioned by the idea of heroism, one who can hardly move his mouth and whose mother can barely recognise him. What follows next is the condemnation of the idea of glory by the very person who was a constituent pawn in the making of it :
Don’t you remember ma, when I went off to war
You thought it was the best thing I could do?
I was on the battleground you were home acting proud
You wasn’t there standing in my shoes “
“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 the most was
when my enemy came close and I saw
that is face looked just like mine”
Oh, lord, 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
And through the roar and smoke
this string is finally broke
And a cannonball blew my eyes away.”
The soldier relates the brutality of the war where parents send off their children, not realising the full consequences of it. Far from being an arena for glory, it simply turns out to be a hell-hole where people spend their time “tryin to kill somebody or die trying“. Above all, it is the rending away of humanity which is the most brutal component of war as it denies the humanity of the very people involved in it which is expressed by the narrator :
But the thing that scared me the most was
when my enemy came close
And I saw that his face looked just like mine”
The soldiers are mere puppets following their master’s order as a consequence of which soldiers like her son come home maimed, blinded and devastated. Some do not even return at all. The idea of glory and bravery are simply hollow words which act as the means of procuring cannon fodder :
As he turned away to walk, his ma was still in shock
At seein’ the metal brace that helped him stand
But as he turned to go, he called his mother close
And he dropped his medal down into her hand.
His mother finally wakes to the shock and the horror of the gruesome realities of war when she sees her son unable to stand without the aid of the waist brace. She sees no glory, no bravery, only devastation.
However, as he walks away, he turns to his mother and drops into her hand all that the war was worth: some piece of metal. By the time we reach the end of the narrative, he is no longer the John Brown we saw we met at the first stanza. In fact, the first line is the only place where his name is explicitly mentioned. By the end, he is just another handicapped soldier who has been chewed up and spit out by the bloody system and is nothing more than a damaged good. The compensation : some stray piece of metal to hang on your wall as a useless showpiece.
John Brown : About the Author
Like a Rolling Stone, A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall, Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright, Blowing in the Wind… has been the ubiquitous folk singer-songwriter whose gruffy voice and robust lyrics can grip oneself in dimly lit alleyways and late night gigs when least expected. Born Robert Allen Zimmerman, the kid who got hold of his first guitar aged 14 went on to become one of the greatest song writers of his time.
Dylan released his first album in 1962 which didn’t receive much attention. However, it was The Freewheeling Bob Dylan in 1963 that made him “viral” before it was cool. The 60s saw his meteoric rise as the leading voice of protest music. Many of his popular songs like Masters of War, Hard Rain’s a gonna fall come from this period. His songs like Blowin’ in the Wind, Only a Pawn in their Game, The Times They are A-Changin’ were at the forefront of anti-war and Civil Rights movements. Mid 60s saw him gradually shift from folk to rock music, gaining a new fan base on one hand and drawing considerable ire from his ex-fans on the other. The 1965 Newport Folk Festival even saw him getting booed by his folk-fans in a grand folk-you gesture which was as ineffective as the hopeless pun you just read.
Dylan married Sara Lowndes in 1965, got in a near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1966 and made a comeback with Nashville Skyline in 1969, launching country rock as an altogether new genre. Like a boss.
A songwriter whose lyrics border on poetry, Dylan was one of the greatest artists to combine the realms of music and literature. He received three Grammys in 1988 and a special citation from Pulitzer Prize in 2008 . The jury for Spain’s Prince of Austrius Prize for Arts described him as a “living myth in the history of popular music and a light for a generation that dreamt of changing the world“.
Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature, becoming the first ever musician to do so.