The Legend of John Henry is an iconic myth of American railroad history, a battle between man and steam drill. One of the intriguing things about the legend is that no one knows for sure if John Henry existed. At least part of the myth is based on historical events from the mid-1800’s; some say the source lies in Alabama, others point to West Virginia, both places where significant railroad tunnels were dug.
The song “John Henry” has been a part of American culture since the 1870’s where it was part of the oral tradition of “hammer songs”, songs timed to the beat of a hammer or axe. While not strictly a blues song, it arose from the same African-American culture that produced blues, and has been performed by many important blues players, including Big Bill Broonzy and Leadbelly.
Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon performed “John Henry” in 1960. They each had vital roles in the development of modern blues: Memphis Slim as one of the greatest pianists, and Willie Dixon as one of the key songwriters and producers for Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Koko Taylor.
One year earlier in 1959, historian Alan Lomax was traveling through the South, making recordings of local and indigenous music. He recorded Mississippi prisoner Ed Young, singing “John Henry” as he chopped wood, the lyrics timed to the swing of his axe. This is probably more what the song sounded like in the 1870’s. Here’s a rare 1966 film clip of Texas prisoners singing and swinging axes:
In 2004 the group Tangle Eye released a project called “Alan Lomax’s Southern Journey Remixed”, taking many of Lomax’s recordings and adding modern sound-beds. One of the songs they remixed was the 1959 recording of Ed Young. It features Henry Butler on keyboards and Tony Trischka on banjo.
Here are the complete versions of “John Henry” tracked through time: