John Henry (Pete Seeger Version)

TITLE: John Henry (Blankenship Version)
AUTHOR: unknown
CATEGORY: Traditional, Public Domain
KEYWORDS: train, work, death, technology, railroading, worker

john-henryHISTORICAL 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

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)


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

RECORDINGS: (mp3’s available through


BONUS YOUTUBE VIDEO: Mississippi Fred McDowell (not the Blankenship Version (but a blues variant)

John Henry (Pete Seeger Version)

John Henry was about three days old,
Sittin’ on his Papa’s knee.
He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel;
said, Hammer’s gonna be the death of me, Lord, Lord.
Hammer’s gonna be the death of me.

The captain said to John Henry
“Genna bring that steam drill ’round.
Gonna bring that steam drill out on the job.
Gonna whop that steel on down. Down, down.
Whop that steel on down.”

John Henry told his captain,
“A man ain’t nothin’ but a man,
But before I let your steam drill beat me down,
I’d die with a hammer in my hand. Lord, Lord.
I’d die with a hammer in my hand.”

John Henry said to his shaker, *
“Shaker*, why don’t you sing?
I’m throwin’ thirty pounds from my hips on down.
Just listen to that cold steel ring. Lord, Lord.
Listen to that cold steel ring.”

The man that invented the steam drill
Thought he was mighty fine,
But John Henry made fifteen feet;
The steam drill only made nine. Lord, Lord.
The steam drill only made nine.

John Henry hammered in the mountain.
His hammer was striking fire.
But he worked so hard, he broke his poor heart.
He laid down his hammer and he died. Lord, Lord.
He laid down his hammer and he died.

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

John Henry had a little baby.
You could hold him in the palm of your hand.
The last words I heard that poor boy say,
“My daddy was a steel-driving man. Lord, Lord.
My daddy was a steel-driving man. ”

Well, every Monday morning
When the bluebirds 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.

* The “shaker” held and rotated the steel drill bit.


  • 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.


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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