Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Black ballads (1) : John Henry

Ed Cabbell - John Henry (from the Digital Library of Appalachia) (2000)

The Two Poor Boys - John Henry Blues (buy) (1931)

Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry - John Henry (buy) (1958)

Today we'll start a series of posts about Afro-American ballads, a musical form that came just before the blues. Ballads were derived from European sources (see previous posts about folk songs), but very soon in the 19th century American ballads emerged, and among them, the ballads of black folk-heroes. The songsters and itinerant musicians carried these songs all over the country, and soon they would evolve into blues, the main difference being that in the blues, singers tell their personal story.

John Henry is by far the most popular of the black ballads, and the most covered in many genres, by musicians of all origins.

First of all, if you want to know and hear more about John Henry, go to Gadaya's John Henry post on The Old and Weird America. My fellow French blogger from Britanny has made a wonderful work of picking no less than 100 versions of the song compiled in 4 different playlists that you can download. The result is amazing. You will also find useful links (including this site dedicated to JH) and a great review of the song.

For this blues oriented post, I only chose African American versions. John Henry was a steel driving man and the famous Big Bend episode told in the song, when he competed against a steam-powered drill, might have taken place in West Virginia. This Appalachian origin explains why the song was covered by countless country and bluegrass musicians.

Painting : Palmer Hayden

In the first version I posted, Ed Cabbell mentions this last fact with humor in his spoken intro, before performing the song a capella, the traditional, work-song way. One of the reasons why the song is so popular, beside the symbolism of its lyrics, was the melody, with its short phrases and pauses, that made it an ideal hammer song, as Paul Oliver states. And please click on the guy's name, you'll learn many intersting things (in short he's a scholar, activist and historian of the Afro American community in the Appalachian).

(Almost) Nothing is known about The Two Poor Boys, apart that they came from East Tennessee and recorded one session in 1931. We don't even know for sure if they were black or white, although I ( along with the majority of historians) really think they were the former, contrary to what Wikipedia says. Their version is interesting because it has a strong hillbilly heritage : the mandolin, the singing and the floatin verse "Who's gonna shoe your pretty little feet", taken from old English ballads. The two guys were probably songsters and played material of various origins. Read more about them here at American String Conspiracy, a great blog that sadly has gone dead.

The third rendition by Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry is an old favorite of mine, because it was in my father's collection when I discovered blues 25 years ago. I guess this is the version I hear in my head when I think about John Henry. The duo was from the Piedmont region, just like our hero.

Mississippi John Hurt - Spike Driver Blues (buy) (1928)

Cephas & Wiggins - Nine Pound Hammer (buy) (1996)

Those are the main 2 variants of the song I also wanted to post. The first is by Mississippi John Hurt, one of the best songsters ever recorded (We will soon come back to his amazing life story). Here the melodyic line, at least in the very first verses is about the same, but the story is a bit different. It's a sort of "post-John Henry" song where the worker prefers to leave than to go on working like this, as if Henry's death had changed something. It's also a symbol of the musician and songster's life, who prefers his freedom and independance to hard labor. Leadbelly did another great version of that song with his "Take This Hammer". Note that Lead used to boast he could pick a bale of cotton a day (an impossible job for one man) in a very John Henry-like attitude.

"Nine-Pound Hammer", first published as a "negro folk-song" in the 20s became a country and bluegrass hit for the Monroe Brothers, Merle Travis or Tennessee Earnie Ford. Cephas & Wiggins, a sort of modern McGhee-Terry duet from Virginia recorded it in 1996 for their beautiful album Cool Down

And what about you ? What's your favorite version of John Henry ? Tell me, please !
Consider checking Gadaya's post on OWA before. Merci Gadaya for your help as the main source of this post.


Lynchie from Aberdeen said...

A long time ago, I remember hearing a song that started out "John Hardy he was a desperate little man..." and I always twinned it with "John Henry". I remember a really driving blues guitar/vocal version of the song and believed the 2 songs were the same. I think it was on one of Leadbelly's albums, but this is the only version I could come up with.


Sorry to detract from your "John Henry" post, but I'm sure the songs are related...

Nicolas said...

Funny because I heard that song yesterday !

As far as I know, it was first sung by the Carter Family.

i love this song too but I know nothing of a possible link with John Henry

That's worth an investigation, and (why not ?) a future post...

gadaya said...

hello Nicolas, for sure afro-american balladery is a very interesting subject. There's a group of songs that i researched recently for my blog that includes Stackolee, Frankie and Albert, Casey Jones...I mentioned on my blog that often The John Henry and John Hardy songs were related, not only because they both are about a black railroad worker but the tunes are also very similar...

Darius said...

Excellent job, as always. Go back to Work week on Star Maker Machine for my take on the song. Like you, I was introduced to the song by Sonny and Brownnie, and that is always how I hear it in my head.

Anonymous said...

OK, Nicolas - you're right. I should leave a comment. And it's this. I really appreciate your blog. I've long been a fan of, for lack of a better term, Americana music, and you've exposed me to some terrific music and taught me a thing or thirty in the meantime. Thanks for your insightful comments and excellent song choices. Please keep up the good work. Glad I found your blog.

-yinzburgher, near pittsburgh, pa [home of Stephen Foster]

Berni said...

Very interesting, as always. Merci beaucoup for all your work on this.

Berni said...

Almost forgot! Here's a link for more Two Poor Boys:


Nicolas said...

merci berni

I had seen this post about 2 poor boys but couldn't remember where
You did that

cheap viagra said...

Ballads are amazing songs, it is one of my favorite type of music, no matter the artist.

Drugstore said...

lassic African-American Ballads is an uncommon sampling of an important, historic, and engaging slice of America’s Black music heritage. The heyday of the Black ballad tradition (1890-1920) left a lasting strain of creativity and a monument to African American life of the time.

Jim Hauser said...

I've spent several years researching the legend of John Henry, and there are so many great versions of the ballad that I can't pick one all-time favorite. Henry Thomas's version is one of my favorites, though. Here is a link to it.


My research looks at John Henry as a symbol of resistance and rebellion. I've got a webpage analyzing the legend from that perspective at the link below.


Jim Hauser