Laylah Ali's "John Brown Song!"

Laylah Ali's "John Brown Song!"John Brown—the white abolitionist who took up arms to end slavery and was hanged in 1859 for crimes including treason—is eulogized in a folk song the Union army would later claim as its marching song. Some of us learned the lines to “John Brown’s Body” (or its later incarnation “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”) as children but perhaps didn’t learn that Brown’s actions are widely credited with sparking the Civil War.

Art professor Laylah Ali ’91, whose project John Brown Song! is now live on the Dia Art Foundation website, has been captivated by Brown’s history for years. But it wasn’t until Dia commissioned her to do a web-based project that she saw a way to create something about him and his legacy. Dia, an arts foundation with several brick-and-mortar locations and a nearly two-decades-long web presence, seeks out artists who do not already use the web as a medium for commissions such as this.

Ali—a painter who has had solo exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, MASS MoCA, and others—first imagined one person singing “John Brown’s Body” as an introduction to the project, but once she received the video she realized she wanted to hear more.

“The invitation to sing was a question about the song and a question about our relation to that time, to slavery, to abolition, and our distance from it,” she explains. “Abolition, formerly a charged and dangerous political stance, is such an antique word now. I wondered if I could find meaning in this strange old song through asking people who might know nothing about John Brown to sing it.”

The final project features 19 video clips of people—all but one of whom Ali knows personally—singing “John Brown’s Body” and an endnotes section with material related to the song. “I see this project more as a series of questions rather than a statement,” Ali says.

To see the project, visit:


Homepage image credit: Ariel Kavoussi ’12.