It is not just the song “John Brown” that is a masterpiece – it is the performance that we have of it on MTV Unplugged. Indeed because that is the only performance I have ever heard of this song, the two are utterly entwined, and the song is greatly enhanced by that performance.
There is not a note out of place, not a moment that is anything less than perfect, and Dylan gives us his message line by line, fully and ideally backed up by the band: banjo and all.
There is something about that backing which creates the smoke and flags of the battlefield, and which combines with the drive and vigor of the melody. The chord sequence is tantalizing – the first verse clearly using only one chord, while the later verses sometimes (but not always) add the descending chord sequence of the guitar around that basic minor.
Eventually, as verse piles upon verse, we get to the final dénouement of the last two verses. Yes, it is simple stuff, and yes we’ve heard it a million times before in a million anti-war folk songs, but never better than this.
“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 cannon ball blew my eyes away.”
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”.