Library of Congress


The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Collection Connections > America Singing

Back to Collection Connections

[Detail] Let me kiss him for his mother

Historical Analysis and Interpretation

In October 1859, abolitionist John Brown led a raid on a federal arsenal in Harper's Ferry, Virginia, to acquire weapons and spark a slave rebellion. The United States Marines recaptured the arsenal before Brown's plan was carried out, but the raid and Brown's subsequent trial and execution marked one of the most controversial events in American history. A search on the phrase, John Brown, produces songs condemning and celebrating the abolitionist's actions.

"The Fright of Old Virginia" provides a sympathetic account of the raid and Brown's fate with the chorus, "Virginia is the state, you know, / That never feared a mortal foe; / But chivalry was rather low, / When Brown came to Old Virginia." " John Brown" echoes the sentiment by describing Brown as both a "hero, and a martyr" who "bled for the colored race . . . [and] longed to set them free."

On the other hand, songs such as "John Brown's Entrance Into Hell," imagines Brown's final destination celebrated by Satan.

"You'll take your seat at my left hand,
Why I do this you'll understand; Be not surprised, when I tell you,
Old Abraham is coming too....
John at my left, Abe at my right,
We'll give the heavenly hosts a fight....;
Abe's Cabinet, 'tis very true,
Will soon knock here as loud as you--
In short, the negroizing clan,
Are traveling here unto a man.

  • What types of images do songs supporting John Brown use?
  • What types of images do songs condemning John Brown use?
  • Do you think that any of these songs provide an objective account of John Brown's actions?
  • What are the specific targets of the songwriters' support or hatred?
  • How do these songs comment on both John Brown and the general issue of slavery?
  • Do you think that such songs might influence how John Brown is remembered in both the history books and in public memory?