Friday Five: John Henry

Ken Morton | April 22nd, 2011

According to myth and folklore, some 170 years ago, a hero was born with a hammer in his hand. John Henry was a mountain of a man who developed a specialty of driving railroad steel. When the railroad owner had the foreman bring a steam-powered hammer to do the work, John Henry challenged the owner to a contest. John Henry bet his life for the jobs of his fellow black driving crew. He raced the steam hammer alone through a mountain. In the end, John Henry beat the machine, but exhausted, collapsed and dies.

Bluegrass legend Bill Monroe sings about the folk hero in “Nine Pound Hammer:” “That nine pound hammer that killed John Henry/Ain’t a gonna kill me, ain’t a gonna kill me.”

My kids were watching the Disney channel this past week and saw an animated short about John Henry hosted by James Earl Jones. It got me thinking about the similarities between John Henry’s tale and the current state of the music business. Our music heroes are trying to carve out a living just like John Henry was. In their case, it’s selling their music. In our modern story, the railroad owner could be Steve Jobs. The steam-powered hammer could be compared to iTunes. Instead of the death of man-powered railroad tie-laying, this modern story tells of the tale of the death of the album. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it does bring about this week’s Friday Five–five songs about John Henry.

  • Best of Blues vol. 1: Harmonica Genius Deford Bailey5. “John Henry” – DeFord Bailey

    Just in case you didn’t know about this harmonica player, Bailey is a Country Music Hall of Famer and the most important African-American member of the Grand Ole Opry. On December 10, 1927, Bailey performed his most famous piece “Pan American Blues” for the first time on radio. Following Bailey’s performance, WSM Barn Dance George D. Hay is quoted as having said: “From now on we will present the Grand Ole Opry.”

  • 4. “John Henry” – Tennessee Ernie Ford

    Off of his 1956 album, This Lusty Land, Ford sang this song live on the Jack Benny show in 1961 in front of America. It includes great sixties humor like the interchange below:

    Jack Benny: What is your suggestion?
    Tennessee Ernie Ford: Well, uh, you play the violin, and I play the violin, and I thought maybe that you and I…
    Jack Benny: Wait a minute! You play the violin?
    Tennessee Ernie Ford: Oh, yes, sir. Of course, I don’t play it like you do.
    Jack Benny: Oh, Ernie, you’re just being modest.
    Tennessee Ernie Ford: I thought I was braggin’

  • Shake 'Em On Down3. “John Henry” – Mississippi Fred McDowell

    Known primarily as a folk/blues guitarist, McDowell lost his cotton picking parents as a child and took to the guitar to escape the fields he was born into. He’d go on to become one of the great Mississippi delta blues artists and crossed genres frequently. He initially played slide guitar using a pocket knife and then a slide made from a beef rib bone–only switching to a glass slide when he finally saw some small financial success playing music.

  • Midnight at the Movies2. “They Killed John Henry” – Justin Townes Earle

    The moral of Earle’s story is essentially that “the man” is going to work you to death. And you’ll be broke. So you have that going for you…

  • At Folsom Prison1. “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer” – Johnny Cash

    This song tells the story of John Henry unlike any other. It’s off of Cash’s 1963 concept album, Blood, Sweat and Tears. Coming in at just a touch over nine minutes, it would seem to be a modern country radio station manager’s nightmare. Some stations might have to break for a commercial mid-song.

  1. Occasional Hope
    April 22, 2011 at 9:54 am

    I’d add in Tom T Hall’s ‘More About John Henry’, which deals with the man’s tangled love life:

    Randy Kohrs did a version of it on last year’s excellent Quicksand.

  2. Jon
    April 22, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    Bill Monroe sings about the folk hero in “New John Henry Blues,” a/k/a “John Henry.”

  3. luckyoldsun
    April 22, 2011 at 4:01 pm

    You missed a classic version of Woody Guthrie singing, accompanied by a very young Pete Seeger on banjo,and all caught on film–though I’m not sure if there was some later splicing involved.

  4. Barry Mazor
    April 22, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    It’s Woody Guthrie with Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee–and the only real sound footage of Guthrie that exists.

  5. Jon
    April 22, 2011 at 5:31 pm

    “Accompanied” – that’s funny!

  6. Rickster
    April 22, 2011 at 8:00 pm

    Can’t say I hanker much for old folk tunes no matter who sings them. I will make an exception though for Elizabeth Cook’s take on “Old Dan Tucker”, and best of all its a free download! Here’s the link:


    I must admit I also really like the old song “Buffalo Gals” but its been hard to locate a version I really like. Oh well…

  7. Ben Milam
    April 22, 2011 at 11:26 pm

    the day john henry died by jason isbell.

  8. Fred Nerd
    April 23, 2011 at 6:03 am

    What about the absolutely awesome Drive-By Truckers “The Day John Henry Died”?

    I love the way their songs are never as ‘poetic’ as most out there.

  9. Ben Milam
    April 23, 2011 at 11:42 am

    that’s a jason isbell song

  10. David B
    May 15, 2011 at 10:49 am

    Little Jimmy Dickens had a good take on “John Henry” as well


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