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John Henry

I have a new album out! Here are some details about the song "John Henry" from my new release Trade Songs: American West.


This song isn’t really about the west. The legend of John Henry racing the steam-drill is likely set in Virginia or West Virginia.

The railroads were important to the American settlement of the west. The transcontinental railroad allowed for fast and safe travel from coast to coast. The development of smaller spur railroads opened up farming opportunities because homesteaders could get crops to market more easily. And the railroads drove the cattle trade. Without refrigeration ration, it was necessary to ship live cows to urban areas where they could be slaughtered and processed.

The first cattle drives in the United States moved cattle from southern Texas up to the rail-head at Abilene, Kansas where the cows were loaded on trains and moved to the stockyards in Chicago. As railroad development moved west, the trails rerouted to new rail-heads in places like Ogalalla, Nebraska, Denver, Cheyenne, and elsewhere.

Similarly, the cattle trails would move stock to mining camps around the Western regions. Mining communities in Montana, the Black Hills, Colorado, Wyoming, and many other places were fed by cattle driven along those trails. The railroads also moved raw materials from those mines back to manufacturing centers in the eastern part of the United States.

When the Transcontinental railroad was being built, workers laying rail across the broad flat prairie of Nebraska and southern Wyoming had it easy in comparison to the Western and Central Pacific railroad, which had to plast and dig its way through the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Tunnels on the railroad and miners had a lot of similarity in their work. To blast a tunnel or mineshaft, several holes would be drilled and then packed with blasting powder or dynamite. Drilling the holes meant striking a long spike with a flat head with a hammer. After each strike the spike would be rotated and struck again. Sometimes a miner or tunneler would work by themselves holding a spike with one hand and striking it with a small hammer held in the other. They called these guys “single-Jack” teams. More commonly, they worked in two man teams. One person would hold a large spike, and the other person would strike it with a large hammer. The person with the hammer was known as the driver and the person with the spike was called the shaker. The term shaker likely refers to the action of the spike as the shook it to rotate it and clear out debris, but some people say it’s because they were scared of being hit with the driver’s hammer.

This song has become one of America’s most famous folk songs, and the legend of John Henry has become one of the most enduring myths in American folklore. It shows the struggle of man against technology, the triumph of the human spirit, and the changing times. It’s one of my favorite songs.


John Henry - Lyrics

When John Henry was a little baby boy

Sitting on his daddy’s knee

He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel

He said hammer’s gonna be the death of me

This hammer’s Gonna be the death of me

John Henry says to see the captain

Said I’m just a Tennessee Man

But I can drive more steel in the limestone rock

Than a hundred men can drive into the sand

Than a hundred men can drive into the sand

Now, the Captain said to John Henry

"I'm gonna bring my steam drill around

Gonna take that steam drill out on the line

Gonna whop that steel on down, lord, lord

Whop that steel on down"

John Henry says to the Captain

“I may not be nothing but a man

But before I let some old steam drill beat me down

Gonna die with a hammer in my hand lord, lord

Gonna die with a hammer in my hand

John Henry said to his Shaker

"Shaker, you had better sing

cause I'm swinging fifty pounds from my hips on down

Listen to that cold steel ring lord lord

listen to that cold steel ring

The man who invented the steam drill

He thought that it was mighty fine

But John Henry drove all of 15 feet

While the steam drill only made nine lord, lord

The steam drill only made nine

John Henry drove through the mountain

When he broke on through the other side

He went to the captain he looked him in the eye

Then he laid down his hammer and he died

He laid down his hammer and he died

You can talk about John Henry as much as you please

Sing of him all that you can

but there never was born in these United States

Never such a steel driving man,

John Henry was a steel driving man

John Henry was a steel driving man lord, lord

John Henry was a steel driving man.

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