John Henry

John Henry

SOS #36 John Henry
Release date 1/20/2017


John Henry - Traditional arrangement Tim O’Brien / No Bad Ham Music / ASCAP

You can talk about John Henry just as much as you please
Say and do all that you can
There never was born in the United States, another such a steel drivin’ man,
Lord, lord, another such a steel drivin’ man

When John Henry was just a little baby boy, sitting on his mama’s knee
He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel
Said this hammer gonna be the death of me, lord, lord,
Hammer be the death of me

John Henry went up on the mountain, he looked down on the other side
The mountain was so tall, John Henry was so small,
He laid down his hammer and he cried, lord, lord
Laid down his hammer and he cried

John Henry had him a pretty little woman, her name was Polly Ann
John Henry took sick and he had to go to bed
Polly drove that steel like a man, lord, lord
Polly drove that steel like a man

They put John Henry on the right hand side, the steam drill hammered on the left
He said before I let that steam drill beat me down
I’ll hammer my fool self to death lord, lord
Hammer my fool self to death

John Henry said to his captain, a man ain’t nothin’ but a man
But before I let that steam drill beat me down,
I’ll die with this hammer in my hand lord, lord
Die with this hammer in my hand

John Henry said to the shaker, shaker you better sing
I’m throwing nine pounds from my hips on down
Listen to that cold steel ring, lord, lord, listen to that cold steel ring

John Henry said to the shaker, shaker you’d better pray
For if I miss that little piece of steel, tomorrow be your dying day lord, lord
Tomorrow be your dying day

The man that invented the steam drill, he thought he was mighty fine
John Henry sunkered fourteen feet, but the steam drill only sunkered nine, lord, lord
The steam drill only sunkered nine

John Henry hammered on the mountain ‘til his hammer it caught on fire
The very last words that I heard him say,
Bring a cool drink of water ‘fore I die, lord, lord
Cool drink of water ‘fore I die

John Henry told his captain, I want to go to bed
Fix a pallet of straw I want to lay down, got a muddy roarin' in my head lord, lord
Muddy roarin' in my head

John Henry died on a Tuesday, it looked very much like rain
The station was crowded with women and men,
Waitin’ on that eastbound train lord, lord
Waitin’ on that eastbound train

They took John Henry to the white house, they buried him in the sand
And every last train that come roaring by says
There lies a steel drivin' man, lord, lord
There lies a steel drivin' man


Recorded November 21st, 2016 at the Butcher Shoppe, Nashville
Engineered by David Ferguson
Tim O’Brien – gourd banjo and vocal

Song notes:

You know that thing when you fill out a form online - where you type in some letters to prove you're not a robot? John Henry, the steel driving man, was not a robot.

Back in the post civil war days when John Henry did his thing, they had new technology like the telegraph and steam power. Steam powered ships had a pre-existing medium - the high seas and some rivers - on which to travel, but the steam train needed roads graded and rails laid to do their thing. Where there were mountains, they needed tunnels. There were a lot of ex slaves who were now convicts in that period, a new labor source for the railroad speculators. That's where John Henry comes in.

In Wendell Berry’s essay "The Work of Local Culture" (1988) – from his book "What Are People For?", the Kentucky poet and philosopher describes and laments the change our society has experienced in the past 150 or so years. The loss of community, the rape of the land, the movement of focus from small, self sufficient villages to large, central, urban centers that can rule and destroy the old system. Commerce and central authority dictating how we live, and even how we think. His words ring true, and that loss helps explain the nostalgia in a lot of country music and in our daily lives. As tech takes on more and more of our space, we reach for the homemade bread, and plan a vacation in the country. That longing for the "real" manifests everywhere you look, and partly explains the recent Presidential election. Enough people want it so bad, they put faith in a guy who lives in a gold and marble tower. A bit like Rome?

But don't forget that technology CAN unite us. The song "John Henry" not only illustrates that technology can't beat a human, not every time anyway. It also shows how those advances allow us to reflect on our circumstances.

People didn't communicate outside their locale so much before the radio and telephone. Coal mostly sat in the ground until steam engines popped up. Between the advent of steam power and the proliferation of radios and telephones, the railroad was a kind of information highway. The legend of John Henry started literally underground, as tunnel diggers, road graders, and coal miners were the ones who spread the legend. They said, "John Henry's one of us". And as they worked they made up rhymes to sing, keeping the rhythm of the pick, shovel, and hammer going. They were a certain strata of the working folks, low on the riches scale, but because they knew each other in wider and wider circles through the new mobility the railroads provided, their rhymes spread far and wide over a few decades. John Henry was from their world, a world that was changing fast, and his story was their symbol, not only of pride in their work, but also of the danger of trying to compete with new machines like the steam drill. It's THE classic American folk song, and it's metaphoric manifestations keep growing and instructing as the years roll on. This was grassroots, communal art from the newly free moving African American culture, promoted greatly across the color line by poor whites who often worked along them side by side.

We need to keep singing this song and use it as a template for new songs. Advances in technology keep coming, and we still wonder when the robots will take over, so there's plenty to write about.

Recommended reading besides the above mentioned Wendell Berry piece– "John Henry the Steel Drivin’ Man" by Scott Reynolds Nelson for history, and "John Henry Days" by Colson Whitehead, fiction with John Henry as an overall metaphor.

I played a gourd banjo made by Bob Thornburg on this track. The banjo used to belong to Mike Seeger and I hope Mike would approve of my version of the song.

I have a new cd "Where the River Meets the Road" coming out in a few months. It focuses on music from my home state of West Virginia, and this track was on the big song list but didn't fit on the final cd. Most scholars agree that John Henry's race with the steam drill took place during the digging of the Big Bend tunnel near Hinton WV. More on the new cd soon.

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