John Brown’s Body Crosses the Pacific

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

On the last two days in April, I got a pair of emails. Each asked me to answer a question relating to China: one the predictable predictive sort I dread, the other the idiosyncratic off-the-wall kind I relish. The April 29 digital missive, from an editor at Foreign Affairs who was putting the same question to a variety of China specialists for a feature, asked me this: “Can the Communist Party survive another ten years if it fails to make ‘major reforms’”? The April 30 email was from the gifted banjo player and singer Abigail Washburn, someone I’ve long admired and recently become friends with; she wanted to know whether I could think of an old American song that had made its way into the Chinese musical repertoire in a particularly interesting fashion, and, if so, fill her in on things like when and how it had made its way to China. As I’m always leery of prognosticating, I answered the April 29 query quickly, spinning my response in a way that highlighted the foolishness of forecasting. The April 30 query has proven harder to answer. In trying to figure out what to write to Abby, I’ve found myself going off in different directions and heading down some initially promising byways that turned out to be dead-ends. This hasn’t been a bad thing. Quite the contrary: the fact that there wasn’t an immediately obvious answer to her question is one thing that made it such a welcome one to get.

The first songs that seemed promising candidates were two transplanted ones that I have brought up in public talks and written about before, but neither of them quite fit the bill. One, “Hotel California,” is definitely American and has certainly had a fascinating history in China, but isn’t old enough to fit Abby’s criteria. The other, “Frère Jacques,” to whose simple tune generations of Chinese protesters have put new words, meets the bar age-wise, but was created in Europe, not America.

After realizing those two songs didn’t quite “scratch where it itched,” as the Chinese saying has it, I thought about “Oh, Susanna” as a possibility. I heard this Stephen Foster song a lot during my stay in China in the mid-1980s, and a jazzed up version of it is featured in A Great Wall, a film from that same period that I often show in classes. Alas, poking around in search of information on Susanna’s Chinese adventures proved frustrating. I came across a reference to a Japanese work from 1933 that mentioned a Chinese jazz singer’s rendition of “Oh, Susanna.” I found that, all the way back in 1857, the Cincinnati Gazette, in trying to convey the widespread popularity of Foster’s music, referred both to Parisians being able to whistle “Oh, Susanna” and to various songs by the writer being sung “all over the civilized world, the sea-coast cities of China not excepted.” But I couldn’t find the kind of details I was interested in relating to any of Foster’s compositions. And while I was excited to discover that he had written a song with the name of a Chinese city in its title, “Don’t Bet Your Money on De Shanghai” turned out to be about cock fights involving a famous at the time but now forgotten breed of chicken.

Finally, thinking back to my dissertation work on Shanghai student protests of the Republican era (1912-1949) put me on a more promising track. I remembered that one song sung at demonstrations during China’s Civil War (1945-1949) had been a variant on “Solidarity Forever,” the old IWW (International Workers of the World) anthem. The creator of “Solidarity Forever,” I knew, had put new words to what was already by the 1910s an old melody. Just how old, I wasn’t sure. I thought at first, incorrectly, that the tune’s origins lay in the era of America’s own Civil War, when the marching song “John Brown’s Body” was written and then reworked by Julia Ward Howe into “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (aka “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory”). It turned out, though, that both the melody and at least one key phrase, “Glory, Hallelujah,” go back another half-century or more, to revival meeting songs with titles like “Oh! Brothers Will You Meet Me?”

I decided that, if could find out anything interesting about the song’s life in China between the two civil wars, I was home free. So, I set off in search of leads on late 19th through early 20th century renditions in China of the song—known by any of its English-language names or the Chinese protest one of “Tuantie Jiushi Liliang,” literally “Unity is Strength”—while also keeping my eyes out for any examples of post-1949 renditions of it. I’ve found enough of interest relating to both periods to feel this is exactly the sort of song Abby had in mind when she sent me the email that triggered my quest.

I am not sure just when the song was first played in China, but the first documented playing of it I’ve found took place 135 years ago. According to Around the World with General Grant, a Shanghai band struck up the tune to greet the globe-trotting Civil War hero and ex-President when he arrived in the city in 1879.

Two of the most interesting post-1949 tidbits relating to the song’s life in China also involve arriving Americans. When W.E.B. Du Bois came to Beijing in 1953, the authorities chose “John Brown’s Body” as just the right song to play to greet him. Four years later, according to a wire service report by Reuters (August 23, 1957), when a group of young American cyclists who defied the U.S. State Department ban on traveling to China rode into the city at the end of an overland journey that began in Moscow, a Chinese crowd sang this same song to make them feel welcome.

The other references I’ve come across to the song being played in China are an eclectic lot. I’ve found an October 15, 1895, Washington Post story titled “Music of the Orient,” for example, that describes a Tianjin band, formed by a German general but with all Chinese musicians, whose repertoire included “John Brown’s Body,” “After the Ball,” and other American songs. The reporter said, using language that reflected the prejudices of the day, that the band was “all right, although it is very funny to see Chinamen in their native dress and pigtails blowing coronets and clarionettes (sic) and trombones.” He claims as well that the band “created a great sensation” when it traveled to Beijing and played in the Forbidden City, giving the members of the Qing dynasty their first experience with “foreign music.” The Empress Dowager, he says, was delighted by the performance, particularly taken with “Marching Through Georgia” and “The Washington Post March.” Nicholas Clifford’s book Spoilt Children of Empire mentions “Solidarity Forever” being sung on Shanghai’s streets thirty years later during 1925’s May 30th Movement.

Other texts suggest that, over time, the melody became deeply embedded indeed in the Chinese repertoire. C.A.S. Williams, who first traveled to the country at the start of the twentieth century, notes in passing in Chinese Tribute, a book published many decades later, that he had heard (though, alas, he does not say when exactly) “‘John Brown’s Body’ played at both weddings and funerals in China.” And there are apparently some in China who simply assume that the tune originated in their country. This, at least, is what I take away from an online exchange in Chinese that took place in 2009 that includes a back and forth about the national origins of the song “Tuantie Jiushi Liliang” (admittedly a confusing issue, since those words have been incorporated into anthems with varying melodies), in which one interlocutor tells another that the melody in question does not have roots in China. Instead, she says, it can be traced back to Ralph Hosea Chaplin’s 1915 composition “Solidarity Forever” (literally “Yongyuan Tuantie”), which in turn “borrowed” the tune of “John Brown’s Body.” The melody has also had an interesting Chinese language life across the straits. A Chinese Wikipedia entry on “Battle Hymn of the Republic” refers to Taiwan protesters of the 1980s making use of the tune, and there is evidence in YouTube clips of the melody being sung there with new words today.

I like it when queries like this divert me from things that I should be doing—such as, in this case, working on a book on China and the world in 1900, the year of both the Boxer Uprising and an international invasion of Beijing by armies marching under eight foreign flags. Still, when I spend time chasing down leads for a side project, I feel guilty about the time it has taken away from my main one, especially when, as with the book on 1900, I am long past a deadline. It came as a relief, therefore, when some of the byways I followed on my song quest led me to find out new things about the Boxer Crisis.

I had no idea, before looking for traces of “John Brown’s Body” in China, that the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was among the songs that Americans who had been held captive by the Boxers in Beijing sang when foreign troops marched in to lift the siege of the capital. Nor did I know that, while the man responsible for “Solidarity Forever” didn’t go to China, another IWW songwriter, Harry “Mac” McClintock (who wrote “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” and “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum”), was there in 1900, working as an aid to newsmen covering the Boxer Crisis. And I certainly didn’t know that in 1900 Julia Ward Howe, most famous for her lyrics to “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” wrote a poem titled “A Word for the Moment: The Boxer Rebellion.” After referring to the uprising as an effort to “stifle Europe in Cathay,” it includes the following stanza describing the endangerment and then saving of the foreigners trapped in Beijing:

Alas! Alas! Their doom is sealed!

No source of succor is revealed.

But still beyond the bounds of sense,

Prevaileth God’s omnipotence

Thankfully, having found these connections between the song and the year 1900, I can feel fine sending this link not only to Abby but also to another friend. Namely, my wonderfully patient Oxford University Press editor, Susan Ferber, who keeps waiting for me to finish my much-delayed book on the events that inspired Julia Ward Howe’s long forgotten exclamation point-laden poem.

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