Johnny Appleseed

(Note: From time to time, we post the posts of others verbatim as they seem perfect just the way they are. We have reposted Ohio composer and educator Rick Sowash’s weekly newsletter which includes a musical piece written by Rick. His post on Sunday 7/26/20, the fourth month of the pandemic when stautues and monuments are being toppled across the nation, talks about an American legend and perhaps creating a national monument to honor him.)

Monuments are much on our minds. Many have been pulled down in anger or discreetly removed by work crews in the employ of municipal governments. More yet will be shown the exit.

And it’s not only statues that are coming down. The Sierra Club now looks askance at John Muir. Planned Parenthood is having second thoughts about Margaret Sanger. I was shocked to learn that Carl Jung was initially hopeful about Hitler. And, as everyone knows, our first eight presidents owned slaves.

* * *

As we remove them from their pedestals, or at least lower the elevation of the pedestals on which they’ve perched, with whom shall we replace them Which historical figures shall populate our nation’s literal and figurative memorial landscape? Is there no one whose memory we can cherish without fear that they did or said something that will diminish our admiration of them?

There is. John Chapman, for one, the pioneer orchardman better known as Johnny Appleseed. I’d like to see a John Chapman National Monument erected and planted (the grounds must feature an apple orchard, not just a statue) in Ohio where Johnny undertook the bulk of his life’s work.

Kids growing up in Mansfield, Ohio, as I did in the 1950’s, knew all about Johnny Appleseed. Johnny’s name was in lots of places around town.There was the:

• Johnny Appleseed Junior High School (where my cousins went),
• Johnny Appleseed Boy Scout Council (of which my troop was a part),
• Johnny Appleseed Shopping Center (in the parking lot of which I learned to ride a bicycle),
• Johnny Appleseed Realty (through which my parents bought our home),
• Johnny Appleseed Coffee Shop in the Leland Hotel (where my Grandma sometimes took me to lunch).

Johnny Appleseed Boyscouts Badge

The Johnny Appleseed Historic Byway connects Loudonville and Mansfield. There is even a small, tombstone-looking monument to Johnny Appleseed in Mansfield’s South Park, next to the historic Blockhouse, a two-story log structure built in the pioneer days to defend the fledgling community.

We all knew how Johnny, during the War of 1812, saved Mansfield from an Indian attack by running, alone, thirty miles south to Mount Vernon.  He convinced the soldiers stationed there to hurry back with him to Mansfield.  With Johnny scouting the path ahead, the soldiers marched quickly and arrived in the nick of time.  Seeing the soldiers, the Indians withdrew.

For Mansfielders, this was the most important chapter in the life story of Johnny Appleseed.  What’s better remembered everywhere else in America is that he planted apple trees so that the pioneers, newly arrived in the wilderness, would find encouragement:  fruit already weighing burgeoning on the boughs.

* * *

Apples were the only domestic fruit available on the frontier and the pioneers used them in myriad ways. They made apple butter, apple sauce, apple pies and cider. The ran string through apples and hung them up to dry, eating them months later. They wrapped apples in burlap and buried them in the dirt floors of their cabin homes, digging them up months later, finding them still crunchy and edible.

There was ‘hard’ cider, too, but most importantly, the pioneers rendered  vinegar from the juice of Johnny’s apples and used it to pickle vegetables, preserving them for eating during the long, cold Ohio winters, when gardens lay fallow and buried in snow.

We knew the facts about him. John Chapman was his real name and he lived from 1774 until 1845. It said so, right there on his monument.

It never occurred to me that Johnny Appleseed could be dismissed as a fictional character.  When I left Ohio to go to college I met students from other parts of the country who thought our hero was “just made up.” That was a shock. Even those who knew he was an historical figure didn’t revere him the way we did back home.

But they certainly had heard of him. He may be the best-known of our American folk heroes; every first grader has at least heard of Johnny Appleseed.

An etching of Johnny Appleseed, from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1871

Though a real person, Johnny also became a mythic figure.  The notion that he went barefoot and dressed in rags (true) and went about wearing a metal cooking pot on his head (false) have rendered him slightly ridiculous. Unfair. Pioneer diaries and letters mention Johnny’s unusual headgear —  hats of his own making with a broad front brim to shield his eyes from the sun — but none specify a cooking pot.

Still, we will always think of Johnny as raggedy, barefoot and wearing a pot on his head. The image befits a saint. The pot is an “attribute.” St. Peter holds the keys; St. Christopher carries the baby Jesus piggyback; St. Cecilia holds a musical instrument; St. Johnny wears a pot on his head.

Johnny IS a saintly figure. Deeply religious, he practiced and preached his cherished Swedenborgianism to anyone who would listen, handing out pamphlets to all and sunder. He may have thought of himself as an American version of John the Baptist, a spiritual non-conformist, a prophet more focused on the future than the present, a voice in a literal wilderness.

The pioneers loved him, eccentricities and all. Dr. Betty Reed, who met the medical needs of rural Richland County for over sixty years, told me the story passed along in her family: her ancestors welcomed Johnny but asked him to sleep in the barn, “because, you know, he didn’t smell very good.”

The Native Americans honored him, understanding his eccentricities as a sign that he was ‘tetched,’ God-kissed. They accepted him as he was and he accepted them and their hospitality.

A National Monument would deepen our understanding of him, his life’s work, the example he set.

He is just about our only non-violent American folk hero. Think about it. American folk heroes are a rough and tumble lot, human dynamos, victorious in a vortex of violence, whether its Paul Bunyan felling old growth forests or Dave Crockett falling at the Alamo.

By contrast, here’s our Johnny — a nurturer! His energy is quiet. He favors slow growth: he establishes and tends apple orchards. Our kinda guy, right?  Let’s erect a monument and plant an orchard to honor him.

I’ve given talks about Johnny to historical societies and in schools.  He is Chapter One in my book, “Heroes of Ohio.”  I wrote and starred in a half-hour documentary film about him. I impersonated Johnny at hundreds of Ohio elementary schools and for fourteen weeks at “Apple Fest” presented by the Heritage Village in Cincinnati’s Sharon Woods Park. That’s right. I went barefoot, wor raggedy clothes and bright red suspenders and a cooking pot on my head.

We even named our son after him: John Chapman Sowash. His friends call him Chapman. We call him Chap, for short. When he was little, he was our Chappy. I miss that little guy.

One of the Many Johnny Appleseed Children’s Books

Every year on the Sunday closest to Johnny’s birthdate – September 26 – I speak up during the part of our church service we call ‘Prayers of the People,’ giving thanks for the life, contributions and example of Johnny Appleseed, America’s best-known non-violent folk hero and the unofficial patron saint of the Buckeye State.

I’ve written several songs and choral works about J.A., as well as a duo for violin and cello entitled “A Suite of Virtues: A Tribute to John Chapman.”  There are seven movements, each evoking one the old-fashioned virtues I believe Johnny possessed:

I. Optimism,
II. Enterprise,
III.  Perseverance,
IV.  Certitude,
V.  Soulfulness,
VI.  Joyfulness, and
VII.  Faith.

The suite has not been professionally recorded. A couple of months ago I asked the violinists and cellists among you, my friends and fans, if they might like to make an amateur recording of one of the movements and send it to me as an mp3 so that I could share it with y’all. A number responded and I assigned a movement to each duo. Now, the recordings, often made in a livingroom with a cell phone, are starting to arrive.

Today I want to share the final movement, “Faith,” a virtue J.A. had in abundance. His faith is best displayed in a story his biographer, Robert Price, recounts in Johnny Appleseed: Man and Myth. Johnny had departed from Pittsburgh in a canoe, heading west on the Ohio river with a cargo of apple seeds.  He got the seeds, for free, from the city’s makers of hard cider. Eager to return to the headwaters of the Muskingum, where the bulk of his orchards were, Johnny did not allow the coming of night to slow his progress. Instead of wasting eight hours by camping alongside the river, he pulled his canoe onto an ice floe and made his bed upon the bags of appleseeds in it. With never a moment’s worry about snags, rocks or rapids, with the stars overhead and resting in the certititude that we’re all in God’s Hands, he slept soundly until dawn.

Now, that displays an admirable faith, both energetic and serene.

To hear “Faith” performed with energy and serenity by violinist Jennifer Dunn and her cellist friend Heidi Nagel, click here. To see a PDF of the score, click here.


I’d love to know what you think about this music; reply if you’re inclined. But please don’t feel that you are expected to reply. I’m just glad you let me share my work in this way. As always, feel free to forward this message to friends who might enjoy it. Anyone can be on my little list of recipients for these mpFrees (as I call these musical emails). To sign up, people should email me at, sending just one word:  “Yes.” I’ll know what it means. To unsubscribe, reply “unsubscribe.”

Rick Sowash
Cincinnati, OH
July 26, 2020

“There can only be a few great composers, but there can be many sincere composers.”
— Ralph Vaughan Williams



Johnny Appleseed Song

Author Unknown

Oh, the Lord’s been good to me.
And so I thank the Lord
For giving me the things I need:
The sun, the rain and the apple seed;
Oh, the Lord’s been good to me.

Oh, and every seed I sow
Will grow into a tree.
And someday there’ll be apples there
For everyone in the world to share.
Oh, the Lord is good to me.

Oh, here I am ‘neath the blue, blue sky
Doing as I please.
Singing with my feathered friends
Humming with the bees.

I wake up every day,
As happy as can be,
Because I know that with His care
My apple trees, they will still be there.
The Lord’s been good to me.

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