John Brown by Bob Dylan: Poem Summary

John Brown by Bob Dylan: About the song

John brown is an anti-war song composed and performed by the American singer-songwriter and Nobel laureate Bob Dylan. The song is an expression of the singer’s deep-rooted sense of pacifism. Bob Dylan is known for upholding American folk music and his work is seen to be highly influenced by the poets of Modernism and Beatnik movements. His songs are generally easy to follow with a deep philosophical meaning. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016 for his outstanding contribution in creating new poetic expressions in the American song tradition.

John Brown is, as previously mentioned, an anti-war lyric. It tells the story of an American mother who sends her son John Brown to war on some foreign land. The song follows the young soldier and his mother’s lives. The singer shows us the true fate of the American soldiers who are stationed in foreign countries for war. He also questions the very nature of war and shows us that there is no nobility in warfare, thereby strengthening the idea of pacifism.

The song was written in October 1962, and has since been performed live on several occasions. It is not however released in any of the singer’s albums but is a standalone piece. It was released under different names around the early 60’s and an official version was released in 2010. The song length is 4:20 in the official version and it consists of twelve verses.

The song does not follow the typical poetic metres, but depends on the vocal and intonational changes to establish ‘poetic cadence.’ Bob Dylan has a North Central American accent with a touch of the mid-west drawl. This makes up for the harmonious melody in his songs and provides for the metre and internal rhyme.

Verse-wise Explanation of the Song

Verse 1:

John Brown went off to war to fight on a foreign shore
His mama sure was proud of him
He stood straight and tall in his uniform and all
His mama’s face broke out all in a grin

At the very start of the song Bob Dylan establishes a story. It starts with John Brown going off to war on a foreign shore. His mother was proud that he was going to serve his nation. On the day he was leaving, he stood straight and tall wearing his uniform. Here the words ‘straight’, ‘tall’ and ‘uniform’ all indicate that John Brown was proud to be a soldier and his body language showed it. His mother smiled as she bade him farewell.

Verse 2:

“Oh son, you look so fine, I’m glad you’re a son of mine
You make me proud to know you hold a gun
Do what the captain says, lots of medals you will get
And we’ll put them on the wall when you come home”

In the second verse of the song, we see the mother of John Brown talking to her son. She says to her son that he looks very good in his uniform and that she is very glad to have been his mother. She is expressing how proud she is for her son. Serving in armed forces is considered as one of the most dignified and noble professions in the world. John Brown’s mother is happy that her son will be serving his nation. She tells him to do what his captain says and he will get lots of medals. And when John Brown will come home from war, she will put them up on the wall for display. The mother here is ignorant of the realities of war. She has a firm belief that her son is going to come home unscathed from the war. She is too proud to realize that war is no game and that she might never see her son again.

Verse 3:

As that old train pulled out, John’s ma began to shout
Tellin’ everybody in the neighborhood
“That’s my son that’s about to go, he’s a soldier now, you know”
She made well sure her neighbors understood

In the third verse we yet again witness the mother’s pride over her son. As John Brown is going away to war in an old train, his mother is shouting out farewell to him. She is flaunting and boasting and wants everyone to know that her son is a soldier and that he is going away to fight in the war. Here we are acquainted with John Brown’s mother’s viewpoint: she is not just delighted that her son is a soldier, but also wants to boast about it to the people that she has raised a soldier, a brave boy who is off to fight for what she believes is a good cause.

Verse 4:

She got a letter once in a while and her face broke into a smile
As she showed them to the people from next door
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!

In the fourth verse we see that John Brown is away at war and his mother is at home. She receives a letter from him once in a while. Her face breaks into a smile reading them. She shows the letters to her next-door neighbours as well and brags about her son. Wearing a uniform and having a gun are those great feats her son has achieved. She brags about the good old-fashioned war as if it were just some event. The mother has no idea about the realities of war.

Verse 5:

Then the letters ceased to come, for a long time they did not come
They ceased to come for 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”

After a while the son’s letters to his mother stopped coming. For a long time John Brown did not write to his mother. It could be either because he was in action or was incapable for holding correspondence. The mother did not receive a letter for about ten months or more. Then one day a letter come for John Brown’s mother saying that her son was coming home from war, and that she should go down and meet him at the train.

Verse 6:

She smiled and went right down, she looked everywhere around
But she could not see her soldier son in sight
But as all the people passed, she saw her son at last
When she did she could hardly believe her eyes

After reading the letter, the mother went right down to meet her son John Brown who has returned home from war. She looked for him everywhere at the train station but could not find her son amid the crowd. Here ‘her soldier son’ probably indicates that the mother expected to see a refined soldier in her son as he returned home. When all the people passed, she finally found her son. But when she saw him she could not believe her eyes. There was something unforeseen there.

Verse 7:

Oh his face was all shot up and his hand was all blown off
And he wore a metal brace around his waist
He whispered kind of slow, in a voice she did not know
While she couldn’t even recognize his face!

Oh, lord, not even recognize his face!

The seventh verse of the song is the description of John Brown’s state after he returns home to his mother from the war. We see that his face is all shot up and one of his hands is blown-off. He has undergone a lot of physical harm in the war. His arm is amputated and his face bears scars from bullet and grenade wounds. He wears a metal brace around his waist to support himself in walking. He seems to be lucky even to be alive after receiving such injuries in the battle. But his torment is not limited to physical harm. He has also undergone mental trauma. When he speaks his voice is slow and unrecognisable, even to his own mother. This suggests both his pain and his horrific experience in the war. He is so altered in physical appearance that even his own mother is unable to recognize his face. The focus is on the evils of war. And this stanza may be marked as the climax of the narrative.

Verse 8:

“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

John Brown’s mother is in utter disbelief after seeing the state in which her son has returned from war. She asks her son how he came to be this way, and what happened to him. She was both shocked and concerned to see her son in such a broken state. John Brown tried his best to to talk and answer to his mother about what all he has been through, but he was hardly able to move his mouth. His mother could not bear to look at her son’s distress and pain and had to turn her head away.

Verse 9:

“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
Thank God you wasn’t there standing in my shoes”

John Brown seems to condemn his mother’s act of pursuing him to be a soldier. His mother thought joining the army was the best thing he could do. But she was wrong. He did not find it a noble thing at all. He was on the battlefield fighting in the war whereas back at home his mother was feeling proud of her soldier son. All the illusions are now shattered. John Brown is relieved and thanks God that his mother wasn’t there in that situation to watch the horrors of war he has seen.

Verse 10:

“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 most was when my enemy came close
And I saw that his face looked just like mine”

Oh, lord, just like mine!

In the tenth verse of the song John Brown is telling his mother his experiences in the war. He says that when he was in the battlefield he wondered why he was even there. He was just trying to kill somebody in a do-or-die situation. It was a realisation that war is chaotic, insane and irrational. He further says that the thing that scared him the most was when his enemy came very close to him and he saw that it was just another human being. He didn’t even know why he was supposed to kill that person. Here Bob Dylan talks about the universal fraternity and how wars are just men trying to kill one another. It is at the end only a loss of human lives.
The expression ‘scared me the most’ is ironic and satiric in tone and delivers a stern message regarding the reality of war.

Verse 11:

“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”

Amidst the chaos of war John Brown was thinking that he was just a puppet in the hands of warmongers who were playing with them. Whether he lived or died did not matter. All that mattered to them was the victory and defeat. Bob Dylan here compares war with a puppet show – an apt metaphor indeed. Soldiers just follow orders and kill people when they are asked to without the slightest consideration or remorse. However, his string of thought was broken as a cannonball came through the smoke and roar and blew his eyes away.

Verse 12:

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 medals down into her hand

John Brown has finished telling his mother how he received the injury. Now he turns to walk away from her. His mother was still in shock after seeing the metal brace that helped him stand. When she sent her son away to war she saw him as a young handsome youth wearing a uniform, but now she was seeing a broken man returned to her in bits and pieces. She was still in shock to realise her loss. And just as John Brown turned to go, he called his mother close to him and he dropped his medal in his mother’s hand. This is an overwhelming scene. The act of John Brown placing the medal on his mother’s hand leaves us questioning if a simple medal, an empty token of pride, was worth the suffering he went through and the damage he will carry throughout his life.