Dylan’s “John Brown”: not just the song it is the staggering performance

by Tony Attwood

It is not the song “John Brown” that works so perfectly within its own context – the story of the mother proudly telling everyone her son is fighting in the war and then coming back shot to pieces is an old one – it is the recording of the Unplugged performance that we have.   That is what makes it so memorable.

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.  The musicians look like the Heartbreakers.

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 songs from the 19th and 20th century, 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”.

We do have another version by Dylan from 1962

The song was seemingly written just before Don’t Think Twice, and seems to reflect Dylan looking back to the old songs to find issues to express and songs to play.  It first appeared on the Broadside Ballads under the name of “Blind Boy Grunt”.

As I noted above the theme can be traced back to Irish songs such as My Son John.  Here’s a rendition of that…

I’m sure Dylan would have been completely familiar with this song, or one of the other Irish variaants of the song.

What else is on the site?

Untold Dylan contains a review of every Dylan musical composition of which we can find a copy (around 500) and over 300 other articles on Dylan, his work and the impact of his work.

You’ll find an index to our latest posts arranged by themes and subjects on the home page.  You can also see details of our main sections on this site at the top of this page under the picture.

The alphabetical index to the 552 song reviews can be found here.  If you know of anything we have missed please do write in.  The index of the songs in chronological order can be found here.

We also now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.



  1. I think the MTV Unplugged ‘album’ deserves to be reviewed on its own. Did Dylan have freedom to decide what songs to set? Where might one find more info on this?

  2. I prefer the performance of this song from 1988/1989. I remember one from NYC around that time; priceless!

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