Oh, They Put John on the Island

DESCRIPTION: "Oh, they put John on the island When the Bridegroom comes, They put John on the island when he comes." "They put him there to starve him." "But you can't starve a Christian." "They fed him on milk and honey." "Oh, look down Jordan river."
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: 1884 (Deming)
KEYWORDS: religious food floatingverses
REFERENCES (2 citations):
BrownIII 546, "Oh, They Put John on the Island" (1 text)
ADDITIONAL: Newman I. White, American Negro Folk Songs (Hatboro) Folklore Associates Inc, 1965 (reprint of Harvard University Press, 1928) #35 p. 96, ("Oh, we'll put John on the island") (1 text)

Roud #11824
cf. "Don't You Weep After Me" (floating lyrics)
cf. "The Ten Virgins" (structure, chorus lines)
cf. "Put John on the Island" (theme, first line)
cf. "John on the Island, I Hear Him Groan" (theme)
NOTES [498 words]: This song contains an odd mix of elements -- the final verses in Brown seem to be imports, and insignificant. But the early verses seem a conflation.
According to Revelation 1:9, John was "on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus." Note that there is no sign he was exiled there; indeed, the general sense is that he voluntarily fled there (probably during the persecution of Domitian, reigned 81-96 C.E.).
Nowhere, however, do we read of John being miraculously fed, let alone with milk and honey (in 10:9-11, he is fed a scroll that tastes like honey, but that's hardly the same thing!). The closest parallel I can think of is in the gospels: In Matthew 4:11, after the temptation by the Devil, "angels came and tended [Jesus]." No mention of milk and honey, though. - RBW
The lines "When the Bridegroom comes" seems more appropriate in "There Were Ten Virgins."
Deming has the following verse from Mississippi, which, he writes, the singers associate with John the Baptist: "In de days of de great tribulation, On a big desert island de Philistines put John, But de ravens dey feed him till de dawn come 'round, Den he gib a big jump and flew up from de groun'. O come down, come down, John!" (Clarence Deming, By-Ways of Nature and Life (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1884 ("Digitized by Google")), p. 372). At the least this brings in Elijah, in God-directed exile from Ahab's control, who is fed by ravens (King James, 1 Kings 17:1-6). - BS
Of course, it also brings in the Philistines, who were no longer a significant people by the time of either John the Evangelist or John the Baptist. - RBW
What case can be made for John the Baptist being on an island fed by ravens? John of Revelation is on the island of Patmos (Revelation 1:9), but that would be a different John at a different time and place.
I am only using the King James text, because I assume that is the most likely text for a non-Catholic 19C hymn singer. [Indeed, there would be no other text accessible to an ordinary southern Protestant. - RBW] The speculation is my own.
First, John the Baptist is imprisoned (Matthew 14.3, Mark 1.14), but the text does not say where. Could be an island.
Second, the singer may follow the apostles in "understanding" John the Baptist to be the prophet Elijah, returned to "prepare the way" before the Messiah (Matthew 3:1-3, Matthew 11:13-14, Matthew 17:12-13).
Third, Elijah -- in hiding -- is fed by ravens (1 Kings 17:1-6).
By association, if God sent ravens to feed Elijah in isolation once, might He not send them again to feed Elijah as John the Baptist? - BS
I suspect Ben has retraced the logic correctly. However, it is worth noting that we do know where John the Baptist was imprisoned; it was in the Herodian fortress of Machaerus, which is not on or even near an island. However, this information comes not from the Bible but from Josephus (Antiquities XVIII.116-119), which, again, most hymn-writers would not have known. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.2
File: Br3546

Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List

Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography

The Ballad Index Copyright 2018 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.