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John Henry

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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.


   "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,

Kokomo O:
John, have you read Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry: the Untold Story of an American Legend by Scott Reynolds Nelson ( 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.

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!"

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.

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.

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,


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