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John Henry

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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.

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,




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.

There's a really interesting version by Gabriel Brown on the "Shake That Thing" East Coast Blues 4 cd set.

uncle bud:
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.


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