Songs are stories in their own right, especially ones that were written by the great storyteller, Bob Dylan. “John Brown” is an anti-war song, written and composed by Dylan and set in the peak of the Vietnam war (or perhaps the American civil war if based on the anti-slavery icon). Either way, it’s a powerful protest against the inhumanity that is warfare, a story of how glorification of the war is quickly silenced by the reality of a wounded soldiers’ return home. I had an idea awhile ago to take some of my favourite songs and turn them into stories. This was an interesting writing prompt for me as well as a lesson learned, and a chance to further explore one of the most moving songs I’ve ever heard. Make sure to listen to the song – Bob Dylan tells the story much better in few words than I do in many.
It’s 1960’s American and the battle outside is raging. John Brown has been summoned, as have many of his peers, to fight for “peace” in Vietnam. A frail, timid and educated young man, John’s passion for modern warfare fails to exist. His mother, however, displays an unlikely passion for the unthinkable thing that is ripping men and women and children from existence. Oh, Good old fashioned war! How things can be so well-admired from great distances.
As he fastens the final button on the uniform that will weigh him down for the unforeseeable future, he feels choked by the country for which he is about to risk his young, frightened life.
When he emerges from the safety of his boyish bedroom where he spent a sleepless final night, his mother stands proudly in the door frame wearing a grin wider than any he has seen before. He finishes off the ensemble with his gun and her heart could burst with pride, for to serve the nation on the battlefield is the most dignified and noble of careers. Her excitement in the lead up to his departure day had been too much to bare, only serving to highlight his lack of enthusiasm. His crippling fear.
Her son, the soldier! So handsome, so brave, so successful! But still his emotions reflect the exact opposite to that of his mothers. “I’ll make some space on the fireplace for the medals you’ll take home!”, she says, in an almost senile way that allows the thought to pass that his mother may be under an elderly-induced confusion, waving her only son off to a friendly football game rather than overseas to the killing field. But this was not the case.
As the train pulls away from the platform and takes her boy away, a single tear falls down her cheek. Reduced to tears, she has never once been prouder.
As he settles on the train and feels it depart, he witnesses his mother becoming smaller in the distance. A single tear falls down his cheek as he wonders if he will ever see her again.
How many deaths will it take till they know, that too many people have died? Oh! Good old fashioned war!
For two years their relationship is reduced to a handful of letters, some of which arrive and some of which are lost in transit. John writes of the strange Vietnamese food and the breathtaking sunsets, but spares his mother stories of dodged cannonballs, crushed limbs, and fallen friends. These letters hang proudly above the mantelpiece, soon to be joined by shiny medals of war.
Soon, the letters cease to come. From an innocently ignorant standpoint and a false glorification of war, his mother does not worry nor think the worst. She waits and waits, her pride growing stronger by the day. Oh, what work he must be doing out there, what victories he must be leading!
When she receives a letter informing her that her son is coming home and instructing her to go to the station, she goes at once to the platform on which she waved goodbye some years before. She stands there once again, with fond memories of her brave and handsome soldier. A stranger approaches…
Only he is not a stranger. He is her son, her only son, and he is bruised, beaten, battled and bandaged. One of his hands did not make it back from Vietnam, and a metal brace surrounds his otherwise unsupported waist. His physical appearance and voice almost unrecognisable, he begins to speak, pouring out the details that he omitted from his letters.
John Brown, tragically tortured and irreparably traumatised from a life that centred around death. What scared him the most, he says, was that when his enemy came close his face looked just the same as his own. Is there a more accurate depiction of the tragedy of war? Man killing man killing man. For up close there are no enemies, only people.
Shocked and confused by the state of her son after years on the battle ground, Johns mother could not help but turn away, but not before he called her close,
And dropped his medals down into her hand.