Parallel Anthology Track 18

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Icon Unknown Status.jpg Track 18: Williamson Brothers and Curry - Gonna Die with My Hammer in My Hand   Okeh 45127; Recorded in St Louis, Missouri, 26.4.1927

No image of record label available. does not assign authorship, nor does either Anthology booklet.

The Roud Folksong Index classes this song as a version of Roud 790. A Roud number search for this song returns only two versions of this song which pre-date the Williamson bros. version and two more from the same year.

According to this website: [1] about the John Henry legend, "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." The site also provides the lyrics of a version published in 1900 or slightly earlier, which has some verses and lines in common with the Williamson bros. version.

According to the Where Dead Voice Gather blog:

The legend of John Henry is an integral part of American folklore and it is reportedly based on fact. There was a John Henry employed by the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Railway during the 1870s and work was being done at the Big Bend Tunnel near Talcott, West Virginia. There are several scholars who dispute exactly where and under what circumstances the contest with the steam drill actually took place. One theory is that John Henry was a convict leased to the C&O Railway by the State of Virginia. Others maintain that John Henry and the steam drill actually had their race in Alabama. Most sources agree, however, that John Henry was a black man.

All versions of his story depict him as a railroad worker who wields a heavy (usually nine pound) hammer. John Henry is usually a spike driver, which is a man who drives steel spikes into sheer rock in order to dig a tunnel. This was exhausting and dangerous work. Even more dangerous was the profession of the "shaker," whose job it was to hold the steel spike steady while the spike driver drove it in, and then shake it around to loosen the rock. One badly aimed swing could cost the shaker his life. Little wonder, then, that the railroads sought to replace human workers with steam driven machines that could do the work faster and with much less risk. Nevertheless, this advance would cost a lot of men their jobs, and it was for this reason that John Henry sought to prove that human labor could compete with the steam drill.

As it seems impossible to determine whether the melody and a large part of the lyrics of the Williamson bros. version are original or derive from earlier versions of "John Henry", the copyright status of this composition is not known.

Parallel anthology main index page

Alternative Versions

John Henry by Pete Seeger album released in 1957 (according to Spotify
Liner notes treat this song as traditional.
John Henry by Paul Clayton album released in 1962 (according to Spotify
Liner notes treat this song as traditional.
John Henry by Ramblin' Jack Elliott    recorded in 1955-57 (according to album title): Spotify
John Henry by John Fahey    recorded in 1959 (according to wikipedia): YouTube 
John Henry by Wise Jones    recorded in 1958: Max Hunter Collection