John Henry

'Hammer in his Hand,
by Paul Hayden - 1944

If there is one single best known and best loved American folksong it is surely John Henry.

It is widely claimed that the legend of John Henry was based on a real person and true event, but several theories stand in contradiction. The site of the famous contest may have been “The Big Bend Tunnel on the C&O road” in West Virginia and took place in the 1860’s after the civil war.

In his book, Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend, professor Scott Reynolds Nelson claims that the steel-drivin’ man was John William Henry a New Jersey born freeman. This John Henry died working in a leased convict labor crew on the C&O. But Nelson says that the steam drill contest must have happened at the Lewis Tunnel where workers and steam drills actually did work side by side.

Still another account comes from a man who claims to have actually witnessed the man/machine contest at the Coosa Mountain tunnel near Leeds Alabama.

An article by Kim Ruehl claims John Henry was a banjo player. I don’t know the source of this, but I’d like to think so. Maybe I could write another John Henry song - John’s Henry’s banjo versus the electric guitar?

In any case, John Henry captured our collective imagination and won’t let go. The song is celebration of the nobility of work and the bravery of workers that gives us hope and sustenance. And then, there is the steam drill. The monster machine is demonic personification of cold, relentless “progress”, taking our jobs and tearing away at our mountains. And here is the steam-drill's collaborator, the cap’n, a proud, arrogant and cruel captain of industry.

Lyrics: 

John Henry was a little baby
Sittin' on his papa's knee
He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel
Said steel’s gonna cause the death of me, Lord, Lord
Steel’s gonna be the death of me.

John Henry had a little woman,
Her name was Polly Ann,
When John Henry took sick and had to go to bed,
Polly Ann drove steel like a man, Lord, Lord
Polly Ann drove steel like a man.

Cap'n says to John Henry,
Gonna bring me a steam drill 'round,
Gonna take that steam drill out on the job,
Gonna whop that steel on down, Lord, Lord
Gonna whop that steel on down.

John Henry told his cap'n,
Well a man ain’t nothin’ but a man
But before I let your steam-drill beat me down
Gonna die with a hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord
Gonna die with a hammer in my hand

John Henry went down to the tunnel,
And they put him in the lead to drive,
That rock so tall and John Henry so small,
That he laid down his hammer an' he cried. Lord, Lord
He laid down his hammer an' he cried.

John Henry said to his shaker,
"Shaker, why don't you sing?
I'm throwin' twelve pounds from my hips on down,
Just listen to that cold steel ring. Lord, Lord
Just listen to that cold steel ring."

Oh, the cap’n said to John Henry,
"I believe this mountain's cavin' in,
John Henry he said right back to that cap’n,
"Aint nothin' but my hammer suckin' wind. Lord, Lord
Ain’t nothln' but my hammer suckin' win."

John Henry told his shaker,
Shaker, you better pray,
Cause if I miss this six-foot steel,
Tomorrow'll be your buryin' day. Lord, Lord
Tomorrow'll be yo' buryin' day."

John Henry told his captain,
"Looka yonder what l see
Your drill's done broke and your hole's done choke,
And you can’t drive steel like me, Lord, Lord
You can’t drive steel like me."

The man that invented de steam drill,
Thought he was mighty fine.
John Henry drove his fifteen feet,
And the steam drill only made nine, Lord, Lord
That steam drill only made nine.

John Henry he hammered on that mountain,
And his hammer was striking fire,
He drove so hard till he broke his poor heart,
And he laid down his hammer an' he died. Lord, Lord
He laid down his hammer an' he died.

They took John Henry to the graveyard,
And the buried him in the sand,
And every locomotive come roaring by,
Says, "There lies a steel-drivin' man. Lord, Lord
There lies a steel-drivin' man."

And every Monday morning, Monday Morning
When the blue birds begin to sing
You can hear John Henry a mile or more
You can hear John Henry’s hammer ring. Lord, Lord
You can hear John Henry’s hammer ring.

Instruments: