John Henry

Children love to hear the same story again and again. Once I asked my son why he wanted to hear Hats For Sale again (for the nth time in a row!!!). He responded simply: “Because it’s a good story”. So here’s John Henry, a song I love to play because, well…because it’s a good story and I love to play it.


The story, of course, tells of this giant, Afro-American workingman, a steel-drivin’ man, who challenged the power of the machine, the steam drill. And who died with a hammer in his hand. A mythologically-large folk-hero, John Henry was apparently a real guy, who, according to some accounts, died in West Virginia in 1871 trying to dig through a mountain. His last words were: “Gimme a cool drink of water before I die”.

The harmonica riff is copied from Sonny Terry, one of my personal heroes.

23 thoughts on “John Henry

  1. I found out about John Henry’s story through Nickelodeon’s Legends of the Hidden Temple show so many years ago, if memory serves me right!

  2. hi Steve,
    in Europe we at first learned the version of skiffle Lonnie Donegan – it took some time to discover Leadbelly – I like your new version very much – and: Sonny Terry would applause too …

  3. I first heard this song many years ago, and thought of it as one of many that celebrated ‘larger than life’ figures in American history. But listening to it now, I felt really sad. It is about the competition, still around today, between men who see themselves as work horses, and the forces of automation.

    1. That’s true. I think that’s what Marx (not Groucho) said: that there’s a dialectic between classes, a ceaseless interplay and conflict between classes or between movements. The plain heroism of John Henry still rings true.

    1. Thanks Marina. You know I’ve played/posted John Henry a number of times already on this blog. If you encourage me like this, I’ll keep on doing it!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s