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Author Topic: John Henry  (Read 30039 times)

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Offline Johnm

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John Henry
« on: September 26, 2007, 05:04:01 PM »
Hi all,
I thought it might be interesting to start a thread on different versions of John Henry.  John Henry looms large in pre-Blues, Blues and Folk Music, and is arguably the foremost figure in Black American folklore.  In the larger sense, he's a great master's thesis  or doctoral dissertation topic, but I thought it might be interesting just to list different versions of the song "John Henry", with lyrics or not, as individual posters prefer.  One request or suggestion:  This kind of activity is more fun if you work from your memory of versions of "John Henry" and mention only one or two versions of the song at a time as opposed to googling John Henry and carpet-bombing the thread. 

It's interesting when you realize that John Henry spawned a host of songs that reference him but are not actually "John Henry", like John Hurt's "Spike Driver's Blues", "Nine Pound Hammer" and "This Old Hammer", from West Virginia.  The general point of these songs is "This old hammer killed John Henry, but it won't kill me.", either because the singer is tougher than John Henry or has more sense than to work that hard.

One of my favorite versions of John Henry is from the Delaware songster Frank Hovington, and was recorded on July 5 in 1975.  Like many versions of "John Henry", Frank Hovington's is played with a slide in Vestapol tuning.  It is epic, clocking in at 6:47, and includes an interior refrain that I have never heard elsewhere.  In the refrain, Frank Hovington does an ascending chromatic line into the IV chord for each of the three lines, followed by an instrumental version of the tag ine of the verses.  I wish the Juke was still running so that you could hear it if you don't have it, because it is spectacular.  Here goes.  The opening solo is almost a minute long before the singing enters.

   SOLO

   "Hello there, John Henry, how do you feel today?"
   "Very sorry to say, Lord, Lord, feel my left side givin' away, hey gal,
   Feel my left side givin' a-(guitar finishes line)
   Feel my left side givin' away"

   REFRAIN:  Well, who been here since I been gone?
   Well, who gonna kiss your rosy cheeks?
   Well, who gonna shoe your cozy feet?

   John Henry's woman, Lord, she talked so fair,
   "Get my shoes from a steel-drivin' man,
   Kisses from a millionaire, hey gal,
   Kisses from a million-(guitar finishes line)
   Kisses from a millionaire"

   Well who's been here since I been gone?
   Well, who gonna kiss your rosy cheeks?
   Well, who gonna shoe your cozy feet?
   Who's gonna be your man?  Who's gonna be your man?

   John Henry's woman, name was Polly Ann
   Day she heared John Henry died, she drove steel like some man, hey gal,
   She drove steel like some (guitar finishes line)

   John Henry went up on the mountain, where he looked all around
   "If I had a twenty pound hammer, beat a little steel back on down,
   Beat a little steel back on (guitar finishes line)
   Well, I beat a little steel back on down"
   
   Well, who been here since I been gone?
   Well, who gonna kiss your rosy cheeks?
   Who's gonna be your man?
   Who's gonna shoe your cozy feet?

   John Henry asked his captain, "When are you goin' to town?
   If you bring me a 20 pound hammer, beat a little steel back on down
   Beat a little steel back on down"

   Who been here since I been gone?
   Well, who gonna kiss your rosy cheeks?
   Well, who gonna shoe your cozy feet?
   Who's gonna be your man?  Who's gonna be your man?

   Early in the morning, 'bout the break of day
   Heared a voice in the wilderness, cryin' "Well, my side, givin' away,
   Well, my left side givin' away"

All best,
Johnm
   
 
     
 
« Last Edit: September 26, 2007, 10:25:54 PM by Johnm »

Offline Kokomo O

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #1 on: September 26, 2007, 05:59:17 PM »
John, have you read Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry: the Untold Story of an American Legend by Scott Reynolds Nelson (http://www.amazon.com/Steel-Drivin-Man-Untold-American/dp/0195300106/ref=pd_bbs_2/104-6147335-6958316?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1190854087&sr=8-2)? Fabulous book. Nelson's a history professor at William & Mary, whose main interest is the growth of railroads after the Civil War, and who found evidence of the death of the real John Henry. He's less interested in the music than the history, but there's discussion of the development of the song in the book too. And he's an excellent story teller and writer.

His thesis, if I'm stating it correctly, is that the real John Henry and the mythical one both died due to competition between man and machine, all in the service of another machine. Shortly after reading the book, I heard a radio show about Bix Beiderbecke in which the speaker (Phil Schaap) claimed that Bix was the first Jazz player who successfully played ballads in Jazz--all prior ballads, he said, were plodding and did not swing, but Bix neither plodded or swung. (When Schaap makes a claim like that, I usually buy it; I've been listening to him almost daily for ten years and have heard him be right many times.) He then played some Bix ballads, but with the caveat that the playing on the records was speeded up to get the requisite number of choruses on a 78. I e-mailed Prof. Nelson, thinking that perhaps all the old versions of John Henry were also speeded up; he was quite interested that perhaps the legend, as we've heard it all these years, was altered in the service of another technological development, the 78 rpm record.

Offline Stuart

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #2 on: September 26, 2007, 07:51:24 PM »
John Garst, who posts to the Pre-War Blues Group, has an alternate theory about John Henry. Here's the reference:

"Chasing John Henry in Alabama and Mississippi: A Personal Memoir of Work in Progress" Tributaries: Journal of the Alabama Folklife Association (2002) 5: 92?129.

He also takes on Scott Nelson. He has posted a couple of things to the PWBG that I saved. If anyone would like to read them, send me PM with your e-mail address and I'll do a mass mailing with the posts as attachments after I get a critical mass.

Johnm: I agree that John Henry would make a great thesis or diss topic, but remember: "Friends don't let friends go to grad school!"

Offline waxwing

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #3 on: September 26, 2007, 09:48:36 PM »
Great thread, John, and I'm cracking up from several posts so far:

Like, yeah, let's see who reads your first line only and then does exactly what you mention at the end of your first paragraph.-G-

Then to be reminded of the John Garst thread on the PWB list.-G- BTW, I think these is also a rebuttal by John Garst posted as a review on Amazon.

And finally Stuart's tag re: Grad school.-G-G- I almost dropped my El Metate carnitas burrito. Almost. BTW, I think these is also a rebuttal by John Garst posted as a review on Amazon.

The two songs that come to my mind were songs you played recordings of for us in your class on arranging at PT. Unfortunately I seem to have misrecorded the Monday late afternoon class so I don't have the first one, which I think was titled Ten Pound Hammer, but that's all I can remember without the recording. Perhaps someone else in the class, Like FP, could post the lyrics and name of the singer.

I do have the recording of the Tuesday class, so here goes.

THIS OLD HAMMER
Dr. P. R. Higgenbotham

I got a letter early one mornin' (3X)
Said son come home, son come home

I didn't have no ready made money (3X)
So I couldn't go home, couldn't go home

This old hammer killed John Henry (3X)
Won't kill me, won't kill me

If I live to see December(3X)
I'm goin' home, I'm goin' home

FYI for folks not in the class, these songs were peformed a capella and were recorded by Dr. Cortez Reese in southern West Virginia from 1949 to 1953 and released on a CD called Work and Pray.

All for now.
John C.
« Last Edit: September 27, 2007, 07:44:06 PM by waxwing »
"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."
George Bernard Shaw

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Offline Johnm

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #4 on: September 26, 2007, 10:22:39 PM »
Thanks for the suggested readings, Kokomo O and Stuart.  I am way behind on my knowledge of the historical John Henry, and could definitely afford to do some reading in that area.  The song you cite, John C., is one of the reasons I thought to start this thread.  Since before Port Townsend, and even more since, I have become seriously addicted to Dr. Higginbotham's "This Old Hammer".  I've been working on a way of playing it that brings out the major tonality, and  I am really stuck on the sound of it.
For those of you have not heard the performance that John C. posted the lyrics to, the melody is pentatonic, employing the following notes, A, C, D, E, and G, with a melodic span from A to A.  The opening melodic phrase outlines an ascending minor seventh chord off of A:  A-C-E-G, resolves up to the A, and then descends, employing the same notes in reverse order.  It is a strikingly beautiful line, and is made all the more interesting by the fact that Dr. Higginbotham's rendition of the song is a capella, so the potential for chordal accompaniment is left open to whomever wants to set the tune up with an accompaniment.  If you hear A as the key the song is in, then you will hear the melody as being minor, or at least "bluesy".  If you hear C as the key the song is in, the melody will sound major but with a strong emphasis on the sixth note of the scale, A.  It's interesting to work with material like this that doesn't already have an accompaniment to use as a guideline; it's good to be forced to rely more on ear and instincts.
The recording that John C. cites, "Work and Pray", is really terrific.  I can't praise it highly enough.  It is full of great songs and great singers.
All best,
Johnm 
   

Offline dj

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #5 on: September 27, 2007, 05:36:50 PM »
My favorite version of John Henry is by Henry Johnson, recorded by Pete Lowry for Trix Records in 1972.  It starts out with one instrumental verse and then a sung verse about John Henry sitting on his mama's knee and saying "women'll be the death of me".  It then goes into a long spoken story where the words come rushing out in absolute torrents in the rhythms of a country preacher, with recurring phrases "and so", "you know", "said", holding everything together and giving a rhythmic cadence.  The story is about John Henry taking sick and his wife going to work for him, but taking just a five pound hammer, so John Henry has to go after her with the nine pound hammer.  The whole thing is punctuated by sparkling little guitar solos where Johnson imitates Henry's wife "swishing" up the tracks to work and Henry limping after her, and her lightly hitting the spikes with a five pound hammer and then John Henry using his nine pound hammer on them.  Johnson doesn't come right out and say that John Henry dies doing this, but he implies it by having John Henry sing "Who's going to shoe your pretty little foot..." at the end.

I started to transcribe this, but it's a BIG job - Johnson crams a lot of words in the spoken part.  One day I hope to get around to it.

The song is on the Juke, but unfortunately the Juke is on hiatus.  That's too bad because it's a great song, well worth listening to.
       
« Last Edit: September 28, 2007, 02:20:30 PM by dj »

Offline Johnm

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #6 on: September 28, 2007, 12:42:59 AM »
Hi all,
Thanks, dj, for the post on the Henry Johnson version of "John Henry".  I have never heard it, and in fact, have never heard the Henry Johnson album on Trix.  It sounds like he was really outstanding.  I've come to realize over time that I'm particularly drawn to post-War Country Blues, and especially stuff from the '60s and '70s.  There is something especially appealing about blues once it was no longer Pop Music.
Another one of my favorite versions of "John Henry" was performed by Furry Lewis on the Arcola CD, "Furry Lewis, Bukka White & Friends:  Party At Home".  It was recorded by Bob West in Furry's apartment on July 5, 1968, and Furry played it after Booker White had played a long and very impressive set of tunes.  Prefatory to playing the song, Furry announces that he is playing it just for Booker White, and that anyone else there who doesn't care to hear it can just put his fingers in his ears.  Like Frank Hovington, Furry plays "John Henry" here in Vestapol with a slide, and it occurred to me listening to this track again that I think his slide playing is horribly under-rated (when he was not clowning).  He does a lot of very nuanced, feathery sorts of moves with the slide here that are quite unusual and show a great deal of finesse.  Furry flows seamlessly from his singing to the spoken portions of this performance.

   John Henry was a little baby boy, settin' at home on his mother's knee
   Cryin', "That Big Bend tunnel on that YMV, it's gon' be the death of me, 'fore I die,
   Lord, it's gonna be the death of me, Lord, Lord, says it's gon'" (guitar finishes line)

   When John Henry hammered in the mountain 'til the head of his hammer caught fire,
   He cried, Y'all just pick 'em up and let 'em down again,
   Just give me one cool drink of water 'fore I die, Lord, Lord,
   Just give me one cool drink of water"

   SPOKEN:  You know, one time John Henry had a job to do, one time, Red,
   he's the best at, people say that awful day will surely come, that's funny how it
   would make it

   SUNG:   Said I'm goin' where John Henry fell dead

   When the women in the West heard of John Henry's death, they couldn't sleep at home in their beds
   Some was dressed in white, some was dressed in red, said,
   "Take me where John Henry fell dead, baby, please take me (guitar finishes line)
   I'm goin' where John Henry fell dead, baby", he said, "Lord knows, I'm goin' where
   John Henry fell dead, dead, I'm goin' where John Henry" (guitar finishes line)

   John Henry told his captain one day, "You can give me my time.
   I can make more money on that C & O than I can on that IC line, Lord knows, then I can"

   SPOKEN:  You know, one time John Henry had a piker, he had to hold little piece of
   steel, just 'bout that tall, he told his piker to hold that steel, he [the piker] said,
   "What's gonna happen?", he [John Henry] says, I'm gonna drive some steel this
   mornin,", Booker, he says, "I'm goin' down, I'm gonna drive some steel today",
   I'm goin' where John Henry sat all dead.

   SUNG:  John Henry told his piker, "I 'clare you better pray.
   If I miss this steel with this 10 pound mawl, tomorrow gon' be your
   buryin' day, goddamn, haha.

Furry ends the piece abruptly with the laughter.  As the rendition went along, he worked himself into a very excited state, and the last spoken interlude is really intense, with him almost chanting the lines, "I'm gonna drive some steel this mornin'" in time with his accompaniment.  At the conclusion of the performance, it becomes apparent that Furry's involvement in what he was singing was so strong that he made himself cry.  He defends himself, saying he's as good a man as any, but sometimes a song just moves you.  You can hear him sniffling for some time afterwards.  I think it's wonderful that someone who at the time had been a professional for more than fifty years retained the capacity to be so moved by what he was doing.  I'll echo dj's comment re the Henry Johnson performance--this one is on the Juke, too.  If you find this CD you should get it--it's a great one from beginning to end.
all best,
Johnm

     


   

     
« Last Edit: February 27, 2008, 10:09:25 PM by Johnm »

Offline outfidel

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #7 on: September 28, 2007, 08:23:27 PM »
On her Homespun video, Etta Baker talks about going in the tunnel in West Virginia where John Henry laid down his hammer. She picked up some railroad spikes in that tunnel and brought them home. Then, on the video, she plays her bottleneck version of "John Henry".

You're right, this is a powerful myth/legend in the black community, and it's spawned a bunch of great songs.
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Offline zoner

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #8 on: October 03, 2007, 10:15:37 AM »
There's a really interesting version by Gabriel Brown on the "Shake That Thing" East Coast Blues 4 cd set.

Offline uncle bud

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #9 on: October 03, 2007, 10:59:19 AM »
One of my favourite versions of John Henry is by Lead Belly, particularly the version found on the Last Sessions. This is one of Lead Belly's driving-est songs ever, I think, and is a great example of twelve-string playing. The guitar just churns through bass lines, rock solid boom-chuck, crazed sixteeth-note picking of chords. It's fabulous. Lead Belly has a lengthy spoken intro on the Last Sessions version in which he talks about visiting the area John Henry was supposedly from with Lomax, and he says about three times "it's a dance tune". Boy, is it ever, and I don't even dance...

I'll transcribe the lyrics and intro a bit later.

Offline waxwing

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #10 on: October 03, 2007, 11:17:35 AM »
Speaking of dance tunes, perhaps we should mention Bill Wilson, by the Birmingham Jugband, which bears no lyric relationship to John Henry, but uses the popular John Henry melody to the note. They play it as a one chorder in F (prob'ly an E on the guitar, 'cause the melody lick fits so nice) and when the Hohoppas played it at the Portland Waterfront Blues Fest an elderly gent (but one young at heart) came clogging down the dirt aisle and danced back and forth in front of the stage. It's a pretty infectious tempo.

All for now.
John C.
"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."
George Bernard Shaw

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Offline Johnm

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #11 on: October 03, 2007, 10:56:24 PM »
Hi all,
Thanks, zoner, for the mention of the Gabriel Brown version of "John Henry".  When I dug out the "Shake That Thing" JSP set on which it appears, i found that I had forgotten that he does two consecutive versions of John Henry, one played with a slide in Vestapol as is usually the case, and the other played out of C position in standard tuning, which is very seldom encountered.  The C version is particularly interesting for he plays virtually the entire tune working out of a C position and moving it up and down the neck intact to get the melody notes he wants on the first string, a la Robert Wilkins's solo in "Police Sergeant Blues".

I've never heard the Birmingham Jug Band's recording of "Bill Wilson", John C.  Is it an instrumental or does it have lyrics?

A different version of "John Henry" entitled "The Death Of John Henry" was recorded by Uncle Dave Macon, around 1946 with Sam and Kirk McGee backing him on guitars.  Uncle Dave's version has a pentatonic melody in A, spanning the octave from V to V, E-F#-A-B-C#-E.  It's really a nice tune, and the McGees' back-up behind Uncle Dave's driving banjo is very trancey, holding the A chord throughout except for a very brief E chord at the end of the form before it resolves.  I like the lyrics, too, especially the fourth verse.  This song would work equally well as a solo piece or in a string/jug band setting.

   People out West heard of John Henry's death,
   Couldn't hardly stay in bed
   Monday morning on the East-bound train
   Goin' where John Henry sits dead, oh Lord, goin' where John Henry sits dead

   Carried John Henry to the graveyard
   They looked at him good and long
   Very last words his wife said to him,
   "My husband he is dead and gone, oh Lord, my husband he is dead and gone."

   John Henry's wife wore a brand new dress,
   It was all trimmed in blue
   Very last words he said to her,
   "Honey, I've been good to you, good Lord, Honey, I've been good to you."

   You talk about John Henry as much as you please
   Say and do all you can
   There never was born in this United States
   Another such a steel-driving man, good Lord, another such a steel-driving man

   John Henry hammered in the mountains
   'Til the hammer caught on fire
   Very last words I heard him say,
   "Cool drink of water 'fore I die, oh Lord, cool drink of water 'fore I die."

All best,
Johnm
   
     

Offline banjochris

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #12 on: October 04, 2007, 08:44:29 PM »
Uncle Dave recorded "Death of John Henry" originally in 1926, again with Sam McGee on guitar, and it has two more verses that come after verse three of the 1946 version -- he doesn't sing the "talk about John Henry" verse in '26. He also fingerpicks the banjo in the '26 version instead of the picking/frailing combo; it has a much gentler feel.

John Henry told a shaker,
Lord I shake while I sing,
Pullin' a hammer from my shoulder,
I'm bound to hear her when she ring, bound to hear her when she ring

John Henry told his captain,
I am a Tennessee man
Before I'll see that steam drill beat me down,
I'll die with my hammer in my hand, die with my hammer in my hand


Chris
« Last Edit: October 04, 2007, 08:45:59 PM by banjochris »

Offline banjochris

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #13 on: October 04, 2007, 08:45:22 PM »
And I've not heard the Gabriel Brown version, but Merle Travis also plays "John Henry" in C.

Offline waxwing

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #14 on: October 05, 2007, 12:22:41 AM »
Hey John M. I'll do one better and post an mp3. I only have time for a quick transcription.

Bill Wilson
Birmingham Jug Band

Bill Wilson had a baby
You could hold 'm in the pad(fat?) of your hand
Says the last word I heard the baby cry
Wanna be your wagon drivin' man, Lord

Bill Wilson had a woman
Say the dress she wore was red
Say the last word I heard that poor gal say
I'm gowine where poor Billy fell dead, Lord

Bill Wilson went to the mountain
It was so tall and high
If I can't climb this mountain, Lord
I'm gonna lay at the feet and I'll die, hey

Bill Wilson had a woman
Wouldn't treat her right
Bill Wilson paid ol' (?)(?)
(?) about the night, hey

The last two lines are pretty tough and I'm not really sure of much of it.

All for now.
John C.
"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."
George Bernard Shaw

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