Little Johnny Brown

Several years ago I wanted to find a song that was easy for 1st grade students to identify the form. I came across Little Johnny Brown and was a bit nervous, thinking that even though they would be able to learn about form from this piece that they wouldn’t like it. It was different than anything else we had ever worked with. To my surprise, my students loved it and picked up the lyrics really quickly. I think they liked singing and living in a minor key for a while. I highly recommend using this piece with your students.

Suggested Grade Levels: 1st grade, 2nd grade, 3rd grade, 4th grade, 5th grade

Analysis:

Verses (B section melody):
2. Take it to a friend (partner) now, Johnny Brown. Take it to a friend (partner) now, Johnny Brown.
3. Lope like a buzzard, Johnny Brown. Lope like a buzzard, Johnny Brown.
4. Show a little motion, Johnny Brown. Show a little motion, Johnny Brown.
Repeat the song as desired or until everyone has had a turn.

*Note: The parenthesis denote a difference of pitch in the first A section and the second. The cadences at the end of the phrases are the same, so the sections are both labeled A instead of A and A’.
**All of the notated versions I have seen are written in a major key. I changed it to a minor key for the purposes of this project and because just about every recording you will hear is minor.

History:
There is so much symbolism in Little Johnny Brown. The comfort, or the blanket, represents the honesty of one’s life and putting everything out for everyone to see (“lay your comfort down”). When the dancers hand the blanket to their partner, it represents everything that a partner has to offer the other. The way that is given and the way that is taken tells a lot about that person’s character. If someone takes it flippantly, you must keep an eye on them because they could cause trouble. If someone takes it respectfully, that is someone you can trust to be a life partner.

As for “lope like a buzzard,” it represents two different things. In the song, it demonstrates how people can be silly with each other, as that is sometimes necessary in a relationship. It also depicts how communities of enslaved people would join together. According to singer/performer Paula Larke, if people died while working on plantations, overseers would take the enslaved people’s bodies and dump them somewhere without giving them a proper burial. Other enslaved people in their communities would find the body and surround it in a circle, loping like buzzards. This was to show that they found the body before the buzzards did and that they would be there as the deceased’s spirit was able to travel to its rightful afterlife.

There is also a story was inspiration for the song. Little Johnny Brown was a hard worker who, although small in stature, was strong and could pick cotton faster than anyone else. When he took it to be weighed, his boss would sometimes short sell him. This angered Johnny, so he would put bricks, stones, dead animals, and debris into his bag to make up the lost weight. His mother found this out and advised Johnny that he should not be dishonest. His boss could cheat him out of his money, but he couldn’t cheat him out of his soul. She encouraged Johnny to be a better man than his boss.

Game:
Children will stand in a circle. 1-4 children will stand in the center with their blankets (I like to use scarves).

“Little Johnny Brown, Lay your comfort down.” — Children in the center will slowly lift their blankets up and down as the group sings.

“Fold down your corner, Johnny Brown.” — Children with the blankets will fold them diagonally, corner to corner.

“Take it to a friend now, Johnny Brown.” — Children with the blankets take it to another child in the circle. This will be their partner.

“Lope like a buzzard, Johnny Brown.” — Children in the circle will walk and “fly” like buzzards.

“Show a little motion, Johnny Brown.” — Children with the blankets will do some type of movement and everyone else must copy it.

After this, the game starts over and the partners who were given the blankets will be the ones in the middle.

Classroom Applications:
–Good for little ones as they learn about AB form
–Syncopation experience
–Teach students about the history and community of enslaved people in the south
–Science ties for learning about buzzards and their habits

Resources:

–Bates, V. (2013, January 23). Little Johnny Brown [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9x2wwJczuAg

–Coppola, W. (n.d.). Little Johnny Brown and music of the Georgia Sea Islands. Cultural Equality. http://www.culturalequity.org/resources/lesson-plans/little-johnny-brown-and-music-georgia-sea-islands

–Feierabend, J. M. (2004). The book of songs & rhymes with beat motions. GIA Publications, Inc.

–KET Education. (n.d.). Little Johnny Brown | dance arts toolkit [Video]. PBS Learning Media. https://illinois.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/e771d48e-6b3d-4507-ae59-6b64b1fb8b47/little-johnny-brown/

–Spalding, S. (n.d.). Cultural and historical meaning – lesson plan. Kentucky Educational Television. https://education.ket.org/resources/cultural-historical-meaning-lesson-plan/

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