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    This product was added to our catalog on Thursday 12 May, 2011.

    The John Brown Song

    Price:  $0.85

    John Brown Songhis is an interesting item for a number of reasons: obviously its iconic stature, at least post-war—as I wrote in my notes to D.C. Hall’s New Concert and Quadrille Band’s CD UNION & LIBERTY! (Music heard on the Northern Homefront during the Civil War):  “We have a tendency to imagine the combined Union hosts singing [it] while marching off to war. In fact, anyone singing this tune in the average Union army camp stood a good chance of getting his head broken.” The tune (and Glory! Hallelujah! chorus) started life as a camp meeting hymn; the first set of Civil War words seem to have been written as an in-joke concerning a sergeant of the name serving at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor in late April or May 1861. It did not take long, however, for a confusion (or at least connection) to be made to the abolitionist hero John Brown...and this well-printed slip ballad is a fine example of what happened next. A second thing makes this rare ballad interesting: unlike the great majority of songsheets it was not produced in a major city but in a provincial printshop: the Cape Cod Republican Press of Harwich, Massachusetts. Simeon Deyo’s 1890 History of Barnstable County Massachusetts provides sufficient information to date the sheet and some background on the man who may well have pulled the handle of the press which printed it as well: “January 2, 1862, the first number of the Cape Cod Republican was issued at Harwich, by John W. Emery, formerly of the Provincetown Banner, the printing office of which journal had been removed for the purpose…In 1864 its publication was discontinued and the editor obtained employment in Boston. In 1864 Mr. Emery returned to Harwich and started the Harwich Press, a paper similar to the Republican. In less than a year he abandoned the field, and removed to Minnesota.”
    The principal use of ballad sheets was, of course, to learn and/or sing songs from; then as now, not everyone had a good memory. Ballad sheets allowed purchasers to either learn a song in the privacy of their own chambers (or tent) and then spring it on the rest of the crowd at an after-dinner social gathering, the oyster rooms, or around the camp-fire; or to just sing the song with sheet in hand to help a defective memory (in the Irish tradition, when a singer gets stuck in the middle of a song, we say "there's a hole in the ballad"!).
    But these sheets also had an important secondary use: they were cheap decor. While especially true of illustrated ballads (like this one), even sheets with nothing but words were pasted or pinned up in public and private rooms as mirthful or improving decoration. Mr. M'Dermott has seen ballad sheets pasted inside trunk lids, books, instrument cases, portfolios and such; doubtless they were stuck up in winter quarters, and they might well have been pasted inside the odd knapsack. Other locations for this item, folded up, are in the corner of a knapsack, stuck into the sweatband of your cap or hat, or in the wallet. They have served as impromptu letter paper when nothing better was to hand, and can again. While these ballad sheets are quintessential ephemera—cheap when bought, and not likely to survive very long—Mr. M'Dermott has been lucky enough over the years to see two examples of what mid-19C purchasers did to keep their prized clutch of ballads handy: one sheaf was pinned with a straight pin along the long side; another had been sewn together with thread, like a side-sewn pamphlet: a  home-made "song book."


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