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Born under a bad sign, been down since I began to crawl. If it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all - Albert King, Born Under a Bad Sign

Author Topic: John Henry  (Read 29999 times)

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Offline Johnm

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #30 on: February 27, 2008, 03:28:05 PM »
Hi all,
I found a nice version of "John Henry" performed by Connie Williams on his Testament CD, "Philadelphia Street Singer--Blind Connie Williams".  As with all of Connie's pieces, it is played out of Vestapol with a complex mixture of slide and naked finger fretting and an unusually rich chordal vocabulary.  Connie sings one verse, takes a solo, and sings essentially the same verse again.  The shortage of verses in a song that so often has very many makes me wonder if the song was possibly a request from Pete Welding, who recorded Connie Williams.  The brevity of the version is reminiscent of the versions of "Stackerlee" and "Spoonful" recorded by Honeyboy Edwards for Alan Lomax.
All best,
Johnm
« Last Edit: February 27, 2008, 04:59:47 PM by Johnm »

Offline uncle bud

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #31 on: April 05, 2008, 10:04:37 AM »
A version of John Henry just popped up in my iTunes. An instrumental version by the Chicago String Band (on the eponymous Testament CD), with harmonica and fiddle sharing lead melody duties. Fun!

Offline doctorpep

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #32 on: April 05, 2008, 11:01:38 AM »
This may be a bit off topic, but my mother is a children's librarian. Knowing that I love Blues, she brought me home a book on John Henry, written by a historian who describes the life of the actual John Henry. I can't seem to find the book on Amazon, but a similar book, Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry: the Untold Story of an American Legend, that was written on the man behind the famous tale states that:

"According to the ballad that made him famous, John Henry did battle with a steam-powered drill, beat the machine and died. Folklorists have long thought John Henry to be mythical, but while researching railroad work songs, historian Nelson, of the College of William and Mary, discovered that Henry was a real person?a short black 19-year-old from New Jersey who was convicted of theft in a Virginia court in 1866. Under discriminatory Black Codes, Henry was sentenced to 10 years in the Virginia Penitentiary and put to work building the C&O Railroad. There, at the Lewis Tunnel, Henry and other prisoners worked alongside steam-powered drills, and at least 300 of them died. This slender book is many-layered. It's Nelson's story of piecing together the biography of the real John Henry, and rarely is the tale of hours logged in archives so interesting. It's the story of fatal racism in the postbellum South. And it's the story of work songs, songs that not only turned Henry into a folk hero but, in reminding workers to slow down or die, were a tool of resistance and protest. This is a remarkable work of scholarship and a riveting story."

Just thought I'd pass that along to everyone.
"There ain't no Heaven, ain't no burning Hell. Where I go when I die, can't nobody tell."

http://www.hardluckchild.blogspot.com/

Offline Pan

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #33 on: April 05, 2008, 12:39:51 PM »
FWIW there is also a book,"John Henry Days", written by Colson Whitehead in 2001, a purely fictional novel slightly touching the subject: http://www.amazon.com/John-Henry-Days-Colson-Whitehead/dp/0385498209


SCWV

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #34 on: May 13, 2008, 05:17:03 PM »
My Favorite JH recording is the lively, wildly boisterous 1927 rendition by Williamson Brothers & Curry (Ervin & Arnold Williamson & Arnold Curry) of Logan County, WV:

John Henry Told His Captain
A Man Ain?t Nothing But A Man
Before I Be Beaten By This Old Steam Drill
I?ll Die With My Hammer In My Hand
Lord, Lord
I?ll Die With A Hammer In My Hand

John Henry Told His Captain
Captain, How Can It Be
The Big Bend Tunnel On The C&O Road
Gonna Be The Last of Me
Lord, Lord
Gonna Be the Last of Me

John Henry Had A Little Hammer
Handle Was Made of Bone
Every Time He Hit The Drill On The Head
 Hammer Reached Down & Groaned, Groaned, Groaned
Lord, Lord
The Hammer Reaches Down & Groans

John Henry Told His Shaker
Shaker You Better Pray
For If I Lift This Six Foot Steel
Tomorrow Will Be Your Burying Day
Lord, Lord
Tomorrow Will Be Your Burying Day

John Henry Had But One Only Child
Stand In The Palm of Your Hand
(?I?m Afraid What?) John Henry Said
Son, Don?t Be A Steel Driving Man
Lord, Lord
Son, Don?t Be A Steel Driving Man

John Henry Had A Little Woman
Her Name Was Sally Ann
John Henry Got Sick And He Could Not Work
Sally Drove Her Steel Like A Man
Lord, Lord
Sally Drove Her Steel Like A Man

I apologize that there were some words I could not make out clearly.
« Last Edit: May 13, 2008, 05:19:04 PM by SCWV »

Offline Ron Mack

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #35 on: May 28, 2008, 05:44:55 PM »
Hey Johnm,
My favorite version of John Henry is by Jesse Fuller. I'm not sure If he ever recorded it or not. I learned the song from watching him on Vestapol Video's "Legends of Bottleneck Blues Guitar" What a great performance.
 

« Last Edit: May 28, 2008, 05:49:36 PM by Ron Mack »

Offline doctorpep

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #36 on: May 28, 2008, 09:17:53 PM »
So far, my favorite versions of "John Henry" are the Furry Lewis version on "Shake 'Em On Down" (truly epic!) and the version done by the Two Poor Boys. Josh White's is a close second for me.
"There ain't no Heaven, ain't no burning Hell. Where I go when I die, can't nobody tell."

http://www.hardluckchild.blogspot.com/

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #37 on: May 29, 2008, 04:52:48 AM »
Hey Johnm,
My favorite version of John Henry is by Jesse Fuller. I'm not sure If he ever recorded it or not.
If you have a look here you might spot a version familiar to you on vinyl or CD.

http://www.wirz.de/music/fullefrm.htm

Offline Ron Mack

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #38 on: May 29, 2008, 06:36:23 AM »
If you have a look here you might spot a version familiar to you on vinyl or CD.
http://www.wirz.de/music/fullefrm.htm

Thanks Bunker Hill.

Offline Johnm

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #39 on: September 29, 2008, 05:48:07 PM »
Hi all,
I found a particularly nice version of "John Henry" on the recently released "George Mitchell Recordings" on Fat Possum.  It is performed by John Lee Ziegler with a spoons player, and Ziegler plays it, as did many other guitarists, in Vestapol with a slide.  The rendition is interesting because though the melody is clearly that of "John Henry", the song is called "Who's Gonna Be Your Man?", and I believe has only one verse that clearly references John Henry.  In this respect it's like the Tommy McClennan song, "Deep Blue Sea Blues", that has the "Catfish" melody and form, but never sings the catfish verse.
John Lee Zielger's playing and singing on this cut are just beautiful, and he often uses the slide to finish a lyric, a device used to perfection by Herman E. Johnson, among others.  Ziegler's other song on the Mitchell set, "If I Lose, Let Me Lose" is, if anything, even better than "Who's Gonna Be Your Man?".  He really had a beautiful sound.
all best,
Johnm

Offline Johnm

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #40 on: May 20, 2009, 09:42:35 AM »
Hi all,
Lightnin' Wells has a very strong version of "John Henry" on his "Shake 'Em On Down" CD from last year.  Like many or most of the players from his part of the world, Lightnin' does it in Vestapol with a slide, and both his singing and playing are really forceful on this rendition.  You should seek it out if you've not had the chance to hear it yet.
All best,
Johnm

Offline Lyndvs

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #41 on: May 20, 2009, 10:23:09 AM »
Blind James Campbell and his Nashville Street band do a version of "John Henry" on their Arhoolie cd.A brilliant ragged string band-they had five members who between them played guitar,banjo,mandolin,fiddle,tuba and trumpet.It`s great to hear the brass on some of these tunes-it sounds brilliant in this context-especially the deep fruity bass of the tuba.Well worth a listen.
take care lyndvs.

Offline Slack

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #42 on: May 20, 2009, 11:33:46 AM »
Heard on the juke the other day a great Old Time Mountain Stringband version of John Henry by Earl Johnson & His Dixie Entertainers..... complete with falsetto harmonies (but not too many  :D ).  This is on disk 4 of "Mountain Blues: Blues, Ballads & String Bands, 1927-38"

Offline Johnm

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #43 on: October 04, 2009, 07:57:38 PM »
Hi all,
There are so many great versions of "John Henry", but I know that Henry "Rufe" Johnson's version on his Trix album, "Henry Johnson--The Union County Flash!" is the particular favorite of more than a few people who have heard it.  I have long admired it and intended to transcribe it, and today was the day it happened.  In the sung portion, when a line concludes with a dash it means the guitar concluded the line.  This one is definitely worth more than a few requests on the Weenie Juke.  Enjoy.

John Henry--Henry ?Rufe? Johnson

SUNG: John Henry, he was a little bitty boy, settin? on his mama?s knees
The last thing I heard that poor boy say, he says,
?The women?ll be the death o? -------
Uh, he said, ?The women?ll be the? ------
He say, ?The women?ll be the death o? me?, he said,
?The women?ll be the? ----------

SPOKEN:  You know, one day, you know, I was walkin? out on the railroad there down where John Henry lived, he lived down in a little old shack down on the railroad, you know.  And he had a woman who was named Polly.  And, you know, he was livin? down there for a lo-o-ong time, you know.  

And so, one day, you know, poor John Henry took sick, you know.  And the poor boy had to go to bed.  And so when they had to go to bed, you know, his work stopped.  And ?bout that time, you know, Polly looked over at him, said, ?Now listen, darlin?, you don?t have to worry about your job.?, say, ?I go up and take your job, oh.?  He said, ?Okay, old lady,?, said,  ?Now when you go up there,?, said, ?Now, don?t try to show out on me, or do I have to get up out of this b-e--d, and show you a trick.?

And ?bout that time, you know, they?s livin? in a little two-room shack, you know, one part where they sleep and the other ?un where they cook and eat, you know.  And ?bout that time, you know, she switched off into the kitchen in the little old part where they cook and eat at, you know, ?cause he kept his hammers, you know, settin? over in the corner, you know, right side o?the thing what they cook on they called the stove, you know.  

And ?bout that time, you know, when she got over there, she picked among John Henry?s hammers, you know, and she got the lightest thing the poor man had, that little light five-pound hammer. And ?bout that time, you know, she puttin? on a show and she come switchin? back through the little old part where they sleep at, you know, and she told him , said, ?Now, listen, daddy,? sayin?, ?I?m goin? to bein? doin? your work, and I?m gonna take your job over, this mornin?."  He says, ?Okay, darlin?, don?t forget what I told you,? said, ?Do I have to get up out of this b-e-d and show you a trick??

She said, ?Okay, darlin??, and ?bout that time, you know, you know how women is when they think they got you covered, you know, she switched out of the little old thing what open and shut and called it the door, you know, and ?bout that time she went out there and went switchin? up a rail, walkin? like this, you know, switchin?, she thought she had him covered, she said:  (guitar imitates Polly?s switchin?). Switchin?!

And ?bout that time, you know, she got up there where she?s supposed to go to work at, you know.  And so she forgot about what John Henry had told her, you know.  And so, about that time, you know, she had raised the little old hammer, that little old light five-pound hammer, you know, and when she raised it up, you know, she commenced to hittin? down on the rail like this, you know, just like this, she said:  (guitar plays melody)  Do it, Polly!  Yeah!  Umm hmm!

And ?bout that time, you know, poor John Henry crep? up out the b-e-d and put his shoes on.  And when he crep? up out the bed and put his shoes on, you know, he went in there in the little old part where they cookin? at, they call it the kitchen , you know,
and so he looked over there among his hammers behind the little old thing, they called it the stove, you know, and so he got that big nine, the one he roll off his shoulder, you know.  And so, poor John Henry come out, you know, and then he went out the little old thing what open and shut, and called it the door, you know, and so when he walked out there the poor boy been sick, he went up the rail kind o? limpin?, he said:  (guitar imitates limpin?)  Limpin?!

And ?bout that time, you know, he got up there where she was, you know, he said, ?Now listen, old lady,? say, ?I told you, don?t try to do that, do it, I have to get up out of this b-e-d and show you a trick.?  She say, Okay, daddy?, say, ?I just tryin? to get the work done.?  He said, ?That?s all right, you just stand right over there, stand right over there, out of my way, you know.?

And ?bout that time, you know, poor John Henry walked up there with that big nine, the one he rolled off his shoulder, and he commenced to hittin? it like this, you know, he said:  (guitar plays melody)  Do it, John Henry!  Yeah!  Umm hmm!

And ?bout that time, he asked her a question:

   SUNG:  Who gon? shoe them pretty ---?
   Who goin? to glove your hand?
   Tell me, who gon? kiss them rosy cheeks, baby,?
   Who gonna be your ----?
   Baby, who?s gonna ---?
   Baby, who?s gonna be your man?
   Baby, who?s gonna be -----?

(Laughter)

All best,
Johnm  
« Last Edit: October 04, 2009, 08:02:14 PM by Johnm »

Offline uncle bud

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Re: John Henry
« Reply #44 on: October 04, 2009, 09:38:16 PM »
Thanks for transcribing that, John. Indeed, one of the great versions of John Henry, and one of the most original while still being recognizable as John Henry.

One I've been listening to lately, completely and utterly different, as well as lyric-less and not country blues, is Glen Smith's version from the County Clawhammer Banjo CDs. Pure joy. Pretty much everything I've heard by Smith qualifies as that though.
« Last Edit: October 04, 2009, 09:40:31 PM by uncle bud »