Daniel Duford: JOHN BROWN’S BODY

“John Brown’s Vision on the Scaffold” is part biography of abolitionist John Brown and part examination of the role of redemptive violence in United States history. “John Brown’s Body” was the battle cry sung by Union soldiers against the Confederacy. The tune was then adapted for “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. Brown, a staunch Calvinist followed the Cromwellian belief that God is the highest law and the only one meant to be followed. Brown emerged publicly during the tense moment when abolitionism took on greater urgency and Southern slaveholders answered with increasing violence. Political compromises from Washington further enabled slaveholders to silence abolitionists. With the intellectual framework of the Concord transcendentalists Brown’s actions in Pottawatomie, Kansas gained a new political and moral context. Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia electrified both the South and the North. The North saw him as an ennobled freedom fighter and the South as a killer proving the depravity of the North. Brown was a much more complex figure than either side allowed. His actions can still be seen from several different prisms and the repercussions still affect us.

Duford began developing “John Brown’s Body” at the Ground Beneath Us. He further developed the work at a residency at the MacDowell Colony in May of 2018. Work from that residency is featured in an exhibition at Linfield Gallery called “America Likes Me” in September 2018.

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This is not limited to the historical. Time is shifted in “John Brown’s Vision on the Scaffold”. It is a meditation on American history and storytelling. The landscape is an essential character in the work. The consideration of tree time is necessary. The slow perception of trees creates a longer narrative arc. Tree time acknowledges other non-human players in the story and accepts their viewpoint. Tree time allows connective tissue to reach over centuries. 

Abolitionism is rooted in a particular historical era. From Quaker activists like the dwarf Benjamin Lay to the Concord Transcendentalists to firebrand journalists like William Lloyd Garrison abolitionism existed to address the institution of slavery. Connected to abolitionism were many other social movements such as women’s suffrage and nascent environmentalism. Branches of those movements still exist today working against slavery by a different name.