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Crime and Prison Songs: “John Henry”

“Take My Hammer” is a work song that possibly has roots going back to the time of slavery and was sung by convicts who were leased to dig tunnels through the Appalachian Mountains:

Take my hammer,
Carry it to the captain,
Tell him I’m gone,
Tell him I’m gone.
If he ask you was I running,
Tell him no,
Tell him no.
Tell him I was going across the Blue Ridge Mountains
Walking slow, yes, walking slow.

Legend has it that John Henry sang this song as he worked himself to death while competing against a steam engine to see which one of them could dig through a mountain faster. But John Henry would himself become legend, and his story became a popular song sung by convicts and folk singers alike.

“John Henry” on the Parchman Farm State Prison

In 1947-1948, Alan Lomax recorded a group of convicts singing the song “John Henry” in the Parchman Farm State Prison in Mississippi. The group was led by a prisoner known as “22,” and they sang the song as they used hoes to dig up the ground.

John Henry had a little baby,
Well, you could hold him in the palm of your hand,
And before that baby was a nine days old,
He was drivin’ down steel like a man.
MY LORD!
Well, he was drivin’ steel like a man.

John Henry told his driver,
Said you all got to know,
That you pay more money on that streamline train,
Than they do on that M&O – YES, LORD!
Than they do on that M&O.

Darlin’, who gonna buy your slippers?
Well, who gonna glove your hand?
Who gonna kiss your rosy cheeks?
Darlin’, who gonna be your man?
OH LORD!
Who gonna be your man?

Well, my brother gonna buy my slippers,
And my cousin gonna glove my hand,
And my mother gonna kiss my rosy cheeks,
Ain’t gonna have no man – MY LORD!
Ain’t gonna have no man.

John Henry went up on the mountain,
And the mountain was so tall,
Well, the mountain was so tall,
and John Henry was so small,
Well, he laid his hammer down and he cried
LORD, LORD!
Well, he laid his hammer down and he cried.

John Henry had a little woman,
Well, her name was Polly Ann.
Well, John Henry took sick and he had to go to bed,
Well, Polly droves steel like a man.
WELL, WELL, WELL!
And Polly drove steel like a man.

Well some said he come from England,
Well, some said he come from Spain,
But I say he was a West Virginia man,
Cause he died with a hammer in his hand
MY LORD!
Well, he died with a hammer in his hand.

Statue of John Henry near Talcott, WV

The Evolution of “John Henry”

You will notice in the “John Henry” song that was sung on Parchman Farm that there is no mention of the celebrated competition between John Henry and the steam engine. The story of John Henry in song has evolved over time, and there are hundreds of versions of “John Henry” that have been recorded over the years with lots of variations in the story.

And in the same way that the John Henry story in some songs is sometimes unrecognizable from the one that we commonly know, many of the folksongs that recount his legend have little relationship musically to the work songs that inspired them. The later folksongs tend to be upbeat—Lead Belly even insisted that the song of “John Henry” is a dance number. The tempos of these later songs are quite different from the methodical and slow tempos of the convict work songs that originally told the story of John Henry. Yet another lineage traces “John Henry” to the group of songs that were among the first to be known as the blues.

Here is a mere sample of some of the “John Henry” songs that have been recorded over the years. All of these versions are available at the Internet Archive.

Paul Robeson

Lead Belly

Pink Anderson

John Lee Hooker

Mississippi Fred McDowell

Peg Leg Sam

Despite the many variations of John Henry in story and song, the one stanza that appears in the majority of songs about him captures the essence of his story’s appeal:

John Henry said to his captain,
“A man, he ain’t nothing but a man,
Before I’d let that steam drill beat me down,
I’d die with the hammer in my hand,
Oh, I’d die with the hammer in my hand.”

The Real John Henry?

John Henry, servant, at headquarters, 3d Army Corps, Army of the Potomac (Library of Congress).

The man in this photograph might be the real John Henry, although no direct evidence links him to this picture. Click on the podcast audio link associated with this post to learn more about the true story of John Henry.

I also highly recommend reading Scott Reynolds Nelson’s Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend.

Sources

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