Country Blues > SOTM - Song Of The Month

John Henry

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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.

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,

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


And I've not heard the Gabriel Brown version, but Merle Travis also plays "John Henry" in C.

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.


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