John Henry (prison songs)
Reading time: 4 minutes. 800 words.
1. John Henry told the captain,
"Captain, captain, gimme my time!
I can make mo' money on the A.C. and L.
Than I can on the Georgia Line."
2. John Henry told the captain,
"Captain, when you go to town,
Bring me back a ten-pound hammer,
I's gonna knock this mountain down."
3. John Henry had a little woman,
Just as pretty as she could be;
They's just one objection I's got to her:
She want every man she see.
4. John Henry asked his little woman,
"Where you get those clothes and shoes so fine?"
"Oh, I got the clothes from a railroad man
And the shoes from a man in the minds."
From the iBiblio
website: " Another variation was submitted by Edward Douglas, whose
address was given as the Ohio State Penitentiary. Douglas said his version was
based on interviews with 'a number of Old-Timers of this Penitentiary.'"
This song presents John Henry's wife, now wearing red (and asking for money),
and it also introduces us to John Henry's son.
1. When John Henry was a little boy,
Sitting upon his father's knee,
His father said, "Look here, my boy,
You must be a steel driving man like me,
You must be a steel driving man like me."
2. John Henry went upon the mountain,
Just to drive himself some steel.
The rocks was so tall and John Henry so small,
He said lay down hammer and squeal,
He said lay down hammer and squeal.
3. John Henry had a little wife,
And the dress she wore was red;
The last thing before he died,
He said, "Be true to me when I'm dead,
Oh, be true to me when I'm dead."
4. John Henry's wife ask him for fifteen cents,
And he said he didn't have but a dime,
Said, "If you wait till the rising sun goes down,
I'll borrow it from the man in the mine,
I'll borrow it from the man in the mine."
5. John Henry started on the right-hand side,
And the steam drill started on the left.
He said, "Before I'd let that steam drill beat me down,
I'd hammer my fool self to death,
Oh, I'd hammer my fool self to death."
6. The steam drill started at half past six,
John Henry started the same time.
John Henry stuck bottom at half past eight,
And the steam drill didn't bottom till nine,
Oh, the steam drill didn't bottom till nine.
7. John Henry said to his captain,
"A man, he ain't nothing but a man,
Before I'd let that steam drill beat me down,
Oh, I'd die with the hammer in my hand."
8. John Henry said to his shaker,
"Shaker, why don't you sing just a few more rounds?
And before the setting sun goes down,
You're gonna hear this hammer of mine sound,
You're gonna hear this hammer of mine sound."
9. John Henry hammered on the mountain,
He hammered till half past three,
He said, "This big Bend Tunnel on the C. & O. road
Is going to be the death of me,
Lord! Is going to be the death of me.!"
10. John Henry had a little baby boy,
You could hold him in the palm of your hand.
The last words before he died,
"Son, you must be a steel driving man,
Son, you must be a steel driving man."
11. John Henry had a little woman,
And the dress she wore was red,
She went down the railroad track and never came back,
Said she was going where John Henry fell dead,
Said she was going where John Henry fell dead.
12. John Henry hammering on the mountain
As the whistle blew for half past two,
The last word I heard him say,
"Captain, I've hammered my insides in two,
Lord, I've hammered my insides in two."
From the iBiblio website: " Another chain gang version was captured by Johnson himself during a visit to the Columbia, S.C., area. Johnson notes that the workers were in a fifteen feet deep ditch, hobbled with chains and knee-deep in muddy water. He said they sang only one stanza although they evidently knew others. He attributes their parsimony of song to their dismal working conditions and the fact that their regular song leader, a prisoner named Britt, had escaped two days before, leaving them disorganized when it came to their singing."
1. John Henry said to his Captain,
"A man ain't nothin' but a man,
And before I'll let your steam drill beat me down,
Die with the hammer in my hand,
Die with the hammer in my hand."
Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:
Source: From William G. Parmenter who said he learned it while working on a chain gang near Jacksonville, Florida, in 1920. Weblink.
Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology.
Laura Gibbs, Ph.D.
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