John Henry (Blankenship Version)

TITLE: John Henry (Blankenship Version)
AUTHOR: unknown
CATEGORY: Traditional, Public Domain
KEYWORDS: train, work, death, technology, railroading, worker
EARLIEST PRINTED OR RECORDED REFERENCE: 1909 Journal of American Folklore
HISTORICAL REFERENCES: Researchers are still trying to pin down the REAL John Henry, from Guy B. Johnson, John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend, 1929 to Scott Nelson’s book 2006 book Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry: the Untold Story of an American Legend
SOME CONSIDER THIS SONG OFFENSIVE: Many versions over the last 100+ years, including Carl Sandburg’s The American Songbag, use a term that is now probably the most offensive word in English. Its degree of offensiveness has increased markedly in recent years, although it has been used in a derogatory manner since at least the Revolutionary War. It is so profoundly offensive that a euphemism has developed for those occasions when the word itself must be discussed, as in court or in a newspaper editorial: “the n-word.”  (from dictionary.com) 

John Henry (Blankenship Version)Guy Johnson’s research indicated that the earliest John Henry ballads originated in the oral tradition of hammer songs in the 1870s and evolved over time into the ballads with which we are familiar today. One of the earliest written copies of the ballad, prepared by a W. T. Blankenship and published about 1900 or slightly earlier, was obtained by Johnson. Johnson believed this version represented portions of several earlier versions.  (from John Henry: The Steel Driving Man)

OTHER TITLES AND VARIATIONS:

  • Gonna Die with a Hammer in My Hand
  • If I Die a Railroad Man

RECORDINGS: (mp3’s available through Amazon.com)

YOUTUBE VIDEO:

YOUTUBE AUDIO: download
LYRIC & CHORD PRO CHART: download
PPT LYRICS FOR THE CLASSROOM: download
BONUS YOUTUBE VIDEO: Mississippi Fred McDowell (not the Blankenship Version (but a blues variant)

John Henry, Steel Driving Man (Blankenship Version)

John Henry was a railroad man,
He worked from six ’till five,
“Raise ’em up bullies and let ’em drop down,
I’ll beat you to the bottom or die, lord, lord.”
I’ll beat you to the bottom or die.”

John Henry said to his captain
“You are nothing but a common man,
Before that steam drill shall beat me down,
I’ll die with my hammer in my hand.”

John Henry said to the Shakers
“You must listen to my call,
Before that steam drill shall beat me down,
I’ll jar these mountains till they fall.”

John Henry’s captain said to him
“I believe these mountains are caving in.”
John Henry said to his captain: “Oh, Lord!”
“That’s my hammer you hear in the wind.”

John Henry he said to his captain
“Your money is getting mighty slim,
When I hammer through this old mountain,
Oh Captain will you walk in?”

John Henry’s captain came to him
With fifty dollars in his hand,
He laid his hand on his shoulder and said,
“This belongs to a steel driving man.”

John Henry was hammering on the right side,
The big steam drill on the left,
Before that steam drill could beat him down,
He hammered his fool self to death.

They carried John Henry to the mountains,
From his shoulder his hammer would ring,
She caught on fire by a little blue blaze
I believe these old mountains are caving in.

John Henry was lying on his death bed,
He turned over on his side,
And these were the last words John Henry said
“Bring me a cool drink of water before I die.”

John Henry had a little woman,
Her name was Pollie Ann,
He hugged and kissed her just before he died,
Saying, “Pollie, do the very best you can.”

John Henry’s woman heard he was dead,
She could not rest on her bed,
She got up at midnight, caught that No. 4 train,
“I am going where John Henry fell dead.”

They carried John Henry to that new burying ground
His wife all dressed in blue,
She laid her hand on John Henry’s cold face,
“John Henry I’ve been true to you.”

SOURCES:

  • Folk Song Index: A Comprehensive Guide to the Florence E. Brunnings Collection, Florence E. Brunnings, Garland Publishing, Inc., New York and London 1981—Amazon Books
  • Country Music Sources: A Biblio-Discography of Commercially Recorded Traditional Music, Guthrie T. Meade, Jr. with Dick Spottswood and Douglas S. Meade, Southern Folklife Collection, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries, NC 2002—Amazon Books
  • Blues and Gospel Records 1902-1943, John Goodrich and Robert M.W. Dixon, Storyville Publications and Company, London Revised 1969.

SONGBOOKS:

NOTICE: I’m not the best guitar player or vocalist, but no one loves these songs more than I do. The tune and lyrics are in the public domain unless otherwise noted. The recording © copyright 2013 by Stephen Griffith and may be used by permission of the copyright holder. The variation of the song I’m posting is the version I perform and is not exactly replicating the sources cited, but is always in the same song family. If anyone has more details about this song, or believes I’ve stated something in error, please let me know. I’m also open to suggestions to improve the site. Thanks. sgg

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