Songs to Know #9: John Henry

We recently read the tall tale of "John Henry" in a book of American Tall Tales by Adrien Stoutenberg. John Henry, like many other tall tales, has many different accounts. Not all tall tales however, have an equal amount of folksongs that carry on the outrageous storylines of these larger than life characters. Covered by many folk singers such as, Pete Seeger, Big Bill Broonzy, Clarence Ashley, Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson, Harry Belafonte, Leadbelly, Johnny Cash - each one tells a story that supports their world view/beliefs.

In this site about John Henry, Geoff Edgers writes about this phenomenon...

"A hero becomes what you need. So in the ballad, John Henry's makeup depends on who is telling his tale. Is he a strong, black man driving the railroad west? A husband and father? A sweaty, dynamo swinging the hammer? A symbol of futility because he died on the job or an inspiration because he beat the white man's steam-drill?

Considering that John Henry did clearly exist - and that we know the color of his skin - it's surprising how rarely his race is mentioned. A Tennessee version, found in Johnson's book, opens with a description of John Henry as a "coal black man." And Leon R. Harris, of Moline, Illinois, told Johnson that in his version, heard for the first time in 1894, John Henry and his hammer took on a white man and his steam drill.

Otherwise, it's likely that the black singers, whether prisoners or blues men, took his race as a given, seeing no need to mention it. He is their Paul Bunyon. In the case of Johnny Cash, race had nothing to do with the ballad. This was a union song, not a civil rights anthem. After all, John Henry, as ultimate working-class hero, has been embraced by disparate groups: black prisoners, white mountain musicians, college folk revivalists, elderly blues singers. Most Southern states have claimed him, as does Maine in Woody Guthrie's version, even though he was likely born in North Carolina or West Virginia.

The connector is this valiant battle, man against machine, man against boss, man against the power structure that keeps his people (African-Americans? Laborers?) in chains. He's a hero to Woody Guthrie, a warning to Mississippi John Hurt, an inspiration to the chain gang. From verse-to-verse, generation-to-generation, the story changes to suit the singer. The name and steel-driving solitude stay the same."

This is an "old timey" version of "John Henry" - it's our family's favorite...

Well John Henry was a little baby boy,

sitting on his daddy's knee Well he looked all around and saw a little piece of steel Said “That steel gonna be the death of me, Lord, Lord

That steel gonna be the death of me" Well The captain said to John Henry "Gonna bring that steam drill 'round Gonna put that steam drill out on the job Gonna whop that old steel on down, Lord, Lord

whop that old steel on down" Well John Henry said the captain "A man ain't nothing but a man And before I let that steam drill beat me down I'd die with that hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord I'd die with that hammer in my hand" Well John Henry said to the shaker "Shaker, you better you sing I’m swingin' twelve pounds from my hips on down Just to hear that old hammer ring, Lord, Lord Just to hear that old hammer ring”

Well the steam drill drivin’ on the right side

John Henry drivin’ on the left

John Henry beat that old steam drill down

but hammered his fool self to death, Lord, Lord,

Hammered fool self to death

Now the man who invented the steam drill He thought he was mighty fine But John Henry drove fifteen feet And that steam drill it only drove nine, Lord, Lord That steam drill it only drove nine Well they took John Henry to the tunnel They buried him in the sand And every little woman come walkin' by Says "There lies a steel-driving man, Lord, Lord

There lies a steel-driving man"

This is another version of "John Henry" sung by Mike Seeger. I love the sounds of the early southern guitar playing accompanying the song.

When John Henry was a little baby boy

no bigger than the palm of your hand

He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel;

Gonna be the steel drivin’ man, lord, lord,

Gonna be the steel drivin’ man.

The captain said to John Henry

'Gonna bring that steam drill 'round.

Bring that steam drill out on the job.

Whoop that steel on down, lord, lord,

whoop that steel on down.

John Henry said to the captain,

But a man ain't nothin' but a man,

before I let your steam drill beat me down,

Die with a hammer in my hand, lord, lord.

Die with a hammer in my hand.'

John Henry went out the mountain

And his hammer was striking fine

Very last word I heard him say

Bring me a cool drink of water before I die,

Bring me a cook drink of water before I die.

Oh the man that invented the stream drill

Thought he was mighty fine,

But John Henry drove his fifteen feet;

And the steam drill only made nine.

The steam drill only made nine.

Oh they took John Henry to the graveyard

And they played him in the sand And every locomotive comes a-roaring by Says "There lies a steel-driving man, lord, lord There lies a steel-driving man"

More John Henry info


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