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Author Topic: John Henry  (Read 29011 times)

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Offline Johnm

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #15 on: October 10, 2007, 04:38:17 PM »
Hi all,
Thanks very much, John C., for posting the mp3 of the Birmingham Jug Band doing "Bill Wilson".  I was wondering if the intent of the performance was to be a parody of "John Henry", but it doesn't seem like that was the case; a pretty straight version by it's sound, with a few changes to accommodate the different title character.  I had heard that some people considered Jaybird Coleman to be the harmonica player in the Birmingham Jug Band, but it sure doesn't sound like him to me, either in the playing, singing, or vocalizing behind his playing in the final solo.
Another especially nice version of "John Henry" was done by The Two Poor Boys, Joe Evans and Arthur McClain, singing and accompanying themselves on mandolin and guitar.  I don't know which musician played which instrument or sang lead.  Their version was recorded in New York City on May 20, 1931.  The version I have of this recording was re-issued on an old OJL "Alabama Country" LP, at which time it was thought that Evans and McClain were from Northeast Alabama.  I believe they were later found to have come from Northeastern Tennessee in the area that produced Howard Armstrong, and across the border in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, Carl Martin. 
Evans and McClain do their version of "John Henry" in G, in standard tuning, and the instrumental portion of their rendition is beautifully worked out, as was everything the duo recorded.  The guitar employs a complex sort of customized "boom-chang" approach with lots of syncopated chromatic runs on the D string, somewhat akin to Jim Jackson's accompaniment to "Wild About My Lovin'".  The duo sang beautifully well together, too, and whichever of them sang the harmony part had a deep relaxed voice something like Walter Beasley's.  As usual, there are some lyrics not encountered elsewhere.

   John Henry was a little baby boy, settin' on his mama's knee
   Had a nine pound hammer, hold it in his arms,
   "Gonna be the death of of me", (harmony, mmm, mmm)
   "Gonna be the death of me"
   "Gonna be the death of me, mmm, mmm
   "Gonna be the death of me"

   John Henry went to that Big Bend Tunnel, hammer in his hand
   John Henry was so small, 'til that rock was so tall,
   Laid down his hammer and he cried, oh, partner,
   Laid down his hammer and he cried
   Laid down his hammer and he cried
   Laid down his hammer and he cried

   John Henry asked his shaker, "Shaker, did you ever pray?"
   "'Cause if I miss this piece of steel,
   Tomorrow, be your buryin' day, oh, partner,
   Tomorrow be your buryin' day
   Tomorrow be your buryin, day, (simultaneous) oh, part', oh God,
   Tomorrow be your buryin' day"

   "Who's gonna shoe your pretty little feet, who's gonna glove your little hand
   Baby, who's gonna kiss your rosy little cheeks
   When I'm in a distant land
   I'm in a distant land?"

   John Henry, he took sick and went to bed, sent for the doctor and he come
   Took a chair down the side of John Henry's bed, says,
   "You sick and can't get well, oh, partner,
   Sick and can't get well."

All best,
Johnm
   
   
   
« Last Edit: February 27, 2008, 10:11:29 PM by Johnm »

Offline Johnm

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #16 on: October 15, 2007, 04:56:20 PM »
Hi all,
Pink Anderson recorded "John Henry" at a session in Spartansburg, South Carolina on August 14, 1961, with Samuel Charters doing the recording.  This version can be found on the album "The Blues of Pink Anderson--Ballad & Folksinger, Vol. 3", most recently available on CD on the Original Blues Classics label (originally Prestige-Bluesville).
Pink's version is played slide style in Vestapol, using a knife as a slide according to Samuel Charters' liner notes.  Pink's slide playing and right-hand approach here are somewhat akin to Peg Leg Howell's when playing slide, though Peg Leg was a cleaner and more nifty player with a slide.  You get the sense listening to the cut that Pink did not do a lot of slide playing, and his playing gains in surety and solidity drastically through the course of the 4:58 rendition.  He does a lot of conversing with his guitar during solos as did Rev. Gary Davis.
Pink sings many verses I have never heard elsewhere.  I've never heard a version of "John Henry" before, for instance, that suggests that John Henry had more than one wife.  I also particularly like the fifth verse, with its suggestion that John Henry was not just some kind of machine himself, but objected to his captain's taking advantage of his work ethic and abilities.  The final verse is a puzzler, and seems almost as though it may have been interpolated from another song.

   Now, when John Henry was just a little bitty boy,
   Went to put his Papa to town,
   "Daddy, I want you to buy me a twelve-pound hammer,
   I want to beat a steam drill down,
   Daddy, I want to be a steam drill down."

   So they put John Henry on the right hand side,
   Steam drill was standing on the left, said,
   "Before I let a steam drill beat me down
   Daddy, I'll hammer my fool self to death
   Daddy, I'll hammer my fool self to death
   Yes, I'll (guitar finishes line)
   Yes, I'll" (guitar finishes line)

   John Henry said just before he died, "Man ain't nothin' but a man."
   Said, "Before I let a steam drill beat me down
   Lord, I'll die with my hammer in my hand
   Lord, I'll die with my hammer in my hand
   Yes, I'll (guitar finishes line)
   Yes, I'll" (guitar finishes line)

   Yes, we heard a mighty rumblin' in the mountain one morning
   We thought 'twas the tunnel caving in
   John Henry whispered to his waterboy,
   "That's my hammer ramblin' wind
   That's my hammer ramblin' in the wind

SPOKEN, DURING SOLO:
   Yeah!------what?---what'd you say?---I knew it?---umm?---sing it again!---Yeah!

   John Henry said to his captain one morning,
   "Captain, how can this be?
   Man, I been on your job just about twelve long years,
   You don't hurry nobody but me,
   You don't hurry nobody but me,
   You don't hurry nobo' but me,
   You don't hurry nobody but me."

   John Henry married to a little bitty woman
   Her name was Polly Ann
   John Henry got sick and she took a five-foot switch,
   Woman drove down the steel like a man,
   Polly, she drove down the steel like a man,
   Yes, she (guitar finishes line)

   SPOKEN DURING SOLO: 
   Say something, guitar!---Yeah!---what'd you hear?---Umm Hmmm---Ummm?

   John Henry married to another little woman
   Dress that she wore was blue
   That woman walked down the track, Jack, never looked back,
   "Man, I once been true to you,
   "Man, I once been true to you,
   "Man, I once been true to you, hear, Lord,
   Once been true to you."

   Mama, when I die, want you to bury me
   Way under beneath-a de floor
   So maybe I can hear some good gambler say,
   "I bet you a dollar more,
   Lord, I bet you a dollar more,
   Lord, I'll" (guitar finishes line)

Edited, 10/17, 07 to pick up correction from Rivers

All best,
Johnm


   
   
   
   
   

   
   
« Last Edit: October 17, 2007, 03:45:08 PM by Johnm »

Offline Rivers

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #17 on: October 15, 2007, 05:15:25 PM »
The version Pink recorded on Gospel Blues and Street Singers (compilation shared w/RevGary) for the last verse he sings something like this:

"Mama when I die, you can bury me, way under'a'neath'a'the floor"

Definitely my favorite version of John Henry, always seems like the archetype to me.

Cooljack

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #18 on: October 16, 2007, 09:40:34 AM »
Fiddlin' John Carson did a 1924 four minuite recording of "John Henry Blues", I dont know whether or not this was the first version of John henry ever recorded (atleast non orchestral version) it's well worth a listen though, just him and his fiddle as far as I can tell , pure skill. It's a classic in my opinion, don't think I can transcribe the lyrics though as I can't really make them out (Only a few words or a line here and there).

Offline Johnm

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #19 on: October 17, 2007, 03:43:57 PM »
Hi Rivers,
I believe the Pink Anderson version you cited is the same one I transcribed, and your reading of the second line of the last verse made me re-listen, since I wasn't happy with the sense of my transcription.  Yours both makes more sense than what I had, and gibes well with Pink's enunciation, so after re-listening I made the correction on the earlier post I had done.  Thanks for the help.
All best,
Johnm

Offline Johnm

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #20 on: October 17, 2007, 04:31:59 PM »
Hi all,
Peg Leg Howell was discovered living in Atlanta in a state of extreme decrepitude and dire poverty by blues researcher George Mitchell in the early 1960s, and was recorded for an album on Pete Welding's Testament label with the idea that any sales the record generated might help Howell out of his desperate situation.  Things didn't quite pan out that way, for Howell's poor health and long hiatus from playing music projected all too clearly on the recording for it to be a comfortable listening experience for all but the most voracious Country Blues fans.
I had never heard this recording but was aware of its somewhat notorious reputation when a copy of it was made available to me last year.  I found that Howell did indeed sound feeble, with his guitar playing perhaps even more wan than his singing.  More listening made apparent flashes of his former instrumental expertise and originality and some beautiful and distinctive singing, though very weak and without the power to push the voice.  I should probably temper this praise by saying that I almost always prefer to hear blues sung by older singers--I much prefer Tampa Red and Scrapper Blackwell's singing on their '60s recordings for Prestige to the singing on their early recordings and I think John Hurt's singing in the '60s completely blew away his singing on his Okeh recordings, which for the most part sounds kind of scared to me.
In any event, there is an interesting version of "John Henry" on the Peg Leg Howell Testament album.  Like most of the versions discussed so far, it was played in Vestapol with a slide.  One of Howell's nifty touches is that every time the melody goes from the V note to the VI note and then to I, he plays the line in octaves, which sounds great.  A couple of his lines are very difficult to decipher, and given the state of his health at the time the recordings were done, I don't know if it can be safely assumed that the intent of the lines would have made sense even if enunciated clearly.

   John Henry was a little boy, hold him in your hand
   Sat upon his father's knee, says,
   "Someday I'll be a steel gang (guitar finishes line)
   And I'm bound to be a steel gang man"

   Carried John henry to the Colorado mountains, put a [steel to John?]
   John Henry so low and the mountains so tall,
   He laid down his hammer (guitar) cried
   Laid down his hammer and he cried

   Henry said to his shaker, "Shaker, you better pray.
   If I miss this six-foot steel
   Tomorrow be your buryin' day
   Tomorrow be your buryin' day."

   So they carried John Henry to the Colorado mountains, put a steel [to John]
   John Henry so low and the mountains so tall,
   He laid down his hammer and he cried
   Laid down his hammer and he cried

   John Henry had a lovin' wife, her name were Polly Ann
   He took sick and he had to go home
   Polly Ann worked steel like a man
   Ann worked steel like a man

   John Henry had a lovin' wife, took her apron string
   She put that hammer and the [handle on the bin]
   You ought to heard the hammer ring
   Heard the hammer ring.

All best,
Johnm
   
    
     
« Last Edit: October 17, 2007, 04:44:06 PM by Johnm »

Offline mr mando

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #21 on: October 18, 2007, 03:55:52 AM »
I posted this over at the IGS forum as my old (???) friend Kyle was asking for it. Since Orville mentioned this here thread at WC over at IGS, I thought I might just post Ragtime Texas' version here as well. It was recorded in 1927 and I think I heard it was the first recorded version of JH by an african-american performer.

John Henry
(Henry Thomas)

Henry got a letter, said his mother was dead.
Put his children on a passenger train.
He gonna ride the blind, lordy.
He gonna ride the blind.

Henry looked down, railroad track, spied the steel-drive engine coming down.
Before I let that steel-drive beat me down.
Die with that hammer in my hand.
Lord I'll die with the hammer in my hand.

Henry went on the mountain top, givin' his horn a blow.
Last words the captain said,
"John Henry was a natural man.
John Henry was a natural man."

Henry had a woman, dress she wore was red.
Goin' on down that railroad track.
"Goin' where John Henry fell dead.
Yes, I'm goin' where John Henry fell dead."

Henry had a baby boy, hold him in his palm of his hand.
Last words that poor boy said,
"I'm gonna learn to be a steel-drivin' man.
Yes I'll learn to be a steel-drivin' man."


Offline mr mando

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #22 on: October 18, 2007, 04:03:51 AM »
Here's the lin to the IGS thread, BTW:
http://www.guitarseminars.com/ubb/Forum1/HTML/019103.html

Offline Johnm

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #23 on: October 19, 2007, 06:15:58 PM »
Thanks very much, Mr. Mando, for posting the lyrics to the Henry Thomas version of "John Henry".  One fun thing about getting these different versions as they occur to people rather than seeking them out in some more systematic fashion is that you are reminded that there are versions of the song that you've heard and may even have in your record collection, but have utterly forgotten.  The Henry Thomas version falls into that category for me, and I will have to give it a listen when I get back to my records next week.  Thanks!
All best,
Johnm

Offline Kokomo O

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #24 on: October 19, 2007, 06:37:15 PM »
The Henry Thomas version is a favorite of mine, for the pan-pipes, the vocal, and most of all the rhythm that just pops out of the speakers. Wish I could do that.

Offline Johnm

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #25 on: October 21, 2007, 10:14:07 PM »
Hi all,
I dug out the Leadbelly version of "John Henry" from his Last Sessions that Andrew posted about earlier in this thread, and having some spare time, decided to transcribe it.  It is a superlatively strong version, with Leadbelly playing in D position in standard tuning, though tuned down to about B, as was his wont.  He uses substantially the same accompaniment as he used for his version of "House of the Rising Sun".  His tempo here is just screaming along; he must have had one of the fastest right hands in the history of Country Blues, in a league with Kokomo Arnold, that very few players ever approached.
A couple of times during his spoken intro, Frederick Ramsey, Jr., who was recording him, interrupts him to get a point clarified.  John Henry buried at the White House?  That's kind of a shocker.  Here goes:

   SPOKEN, LEADBELLY:  Now "John Henry", you know, it's a-made up about a hard-working man, folks, don't forget it.  Anytime you hear anybody singin' "John Henry", it's a dance tune if they play it right.  Some people don't . . .
   RAMSEY, INTERRUPTING:  Well now, where did John Henry come from?
   SPOKEN, LEADBELLY:  Well, John Henry come from Newport News.  Mr. Lomax and myself, we drove all around where the spot John Henry was born at.  Well, that's the reason why they say "that C & O road", that road runs out from Newport News to Cincinnati, Ohio.  John Henry was the man, drove steel and put down, he drove spikes around all the steel that was laid from Newport News to Cincinnati, Ohio, now that's true.
   Ellen Louise was a track liner.  She'd come behind like John Henry, she'd line the track with eight men.  She lined all that track and when Ellen Louise went out linin' track, in come the train, oozin' on up to it, see?  The whole thing come, the Rock Island line, see, when they brings in . . .
   RAMSEY, INTERRUPTING:  She kept ahead of the train.
   SPOKEN, LEADBELLY:  That's right.  What?
   RAMSEY;  She kept ahead of the train.
   SPOKEN, LEADBELLY:  Yes, she was ahead of the train, but they didn't start the train 'til she was nearly out, you know.  So she had to be out when the train come, but anyhow, the train'd ooze along, track was all right.  Now, this is "John Henry", and it's a dance tune, and we dance to it down home, now I'm gonna play it to you.

   John Henry was a new-born baby, sittin' down on his mama's knee
   Say, "That Big Bend Tunnel on that C & O road,
   It's gonna be the death of me, Lord, Lord,
   It's gonna be the death of me
   It is gonna be the death of me, Lord, Lord,
   It's gonna be the death of me."

   John Henry had two women, one was named Mary Magdalene
   He would go out on the job and she would sing,
   "Hear John Henry's hammer ring, Lord, Lord,
   Hear John Henry's hammer ring. 
   Hear John Henry's hammer ring, Lord, Lord,
   Hear John Henry's hammer ring."

   John Henry had another little woman, her name was sweet Polly Ann
   John Henry taken sick, boy, and he had to go to bed
   Polly Ann drove steel just like a man, Lord, Lord,
   Polly Ann drove steel like a man
   Polly Ann drove steel just like a man, Lord, Lord,
   Polly Ann drove steel like a man.

   SPOKEN:  Before John Henry dies, he called Polly Ann to his bedside.  Wasn't thinkin' about Mary Magdalene.  And this what he wanted Polly Ann to tell him 'fore he died.

   "Baby, who's gonna shoe your little feet, tell me, who's gonna glove your hand?
   Tell me, who's gonna kiss your sweet little lips, now
   Tell me, who's gonna be your man, Lord, Lord,
   Tell me, who's gonna be your man.
   Tell me, who's gonna be your man, Lord, Lord,
   Tell me, who's gonna be your man."

   SPOKEN:  She told him, 

   "My papa's gonna shoe my little feet, my mama's gonna glove my hand
   My sister's gonna kiss my sweet little lips, now
   You know I don't need no man, Lord, Lord,
   You know I don't need no man.
   You know I don't need no man, Lord, Lord,
   You know I don't need no man."

   SPOKEN, DURING SOLO:  Tell him, now---ah ha--yeah!

   Then they taken John Henry to the White House, they buried him in the sand
   And every locomotive comes a-rollin' by, sayin'
   "There lies that steel-drivin' man, Lord, Lord,
   There lies that steel-drivin' man.
   There lies that steel-drivin' man, Lord, Lord,
   There lies that steel-drivin' man."

SPOKEN:  That was "John Henry", which is a dance tune.

All best,
Johnm
   

   

 
« Last Edit: October 22, 2007, 02:03:34 PM by Johnm »

Offline Johnm

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #26 on: November 08, 2007, 07:11:03 PM »
Hi all,
There are some great recordings of "John Henry" by Old-Time musicians.  On the recently released "Hobart Smith--In Sacred Trust" on Smithsonian Folkways, Hobart Smith does a really nice, unusually contemplative slide version of "John Henry" in Vestapol.  And on the old County Records anthology, "Clawhammer Banjo", there's a ripping version featuring Fred Cockerham on fiddle and vocal and Kyle Creed on banjo.  I love Fred's singing, but man, is it hard to tell what he's saying!
All best,
Johnm

Offline banjochris

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #27 on: November 10, 2007, 03:00:57 PM »
I have a recording of Cockerham singing "John Henry" and playing it (beautifully) on banjo on an old LP called "Southern Clawhammer Banjo." It's very marginally easier to understand than the recording with him and Kyle Creed. He sings an extra verse to the usual melody of the tune before launching back into the Round Peak version.

Here are the words, as best as I can make out:

Been to that bottom don't get mad, lord lord,
Been to that bottom don't get mad.

Pass around them bacon and your beans, lord lord
Pass around them bacon and your beans.

I used to court John Henry's girl,
Asked her to be my bride,
She run away with a steel-drivin' man,
Thought it would take my life, lord lord,
Thought it would take my life.

Chris

Offline Johnm

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #28 on: November 10, 2007, 11:35:51 PM »
Thanks for those lyrics, Chris.  I'm inspired to go back and listen to the recording I have and see if I can hear any more of the lyrics on it.  Fred Cockerham's music was so strong, no matter what he was doing.
all best,
Johnm

Offline banjochris

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #29 on: November 11, 2007, 10:04:14 PM »
John, I think it's the same first two verses that I transcribed on that "Clawhammer Banjo" track. The bacon and beans is the same, for sure. And I agree, Cockerham was great; his banjo playing especially is unique.
Chris

 


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