Paul Bunyan and John Henry

Week 14: American Folklore - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

The Legend of John Henry's Hammer (Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash)

Reading time: 9 minutes.

Johnny Cash's version of John Henry - "Legend of John Henry's Hammer" - is very different from the traditional versions. To be honest, I prefer the traditional versions - but this is Johnny Cash, and it's not like I could leave him out! :-)

(Johnny Cash - June Carter)

John Henry's pappy woke him up one midnight
He said 'fore the sheriff comes I want to tell you
Listen boy he said, learn to ball a jack learn to lay a track
Learn to pick and shovel too and take my hammer
It'll do anything you tell it to

John Henry's mammy had about a dozen babies
John Henry's pappy broke jail about a dozen times
The babies all got sick and when the doctor wanted money
He said I'll pay you a quarter at a time startin' tomorrow
That's pay for a steel driver on this line

Then the section foreman said hey hammer swinger
I see you brought your own hammer boy
But what else can all them muscles do
And he said I can turn a jack, I can lay a track
I can pick and shovel too (can you swing a hammer boy)
Yes, well I'll do anything you hire me to

(Now ain't you something so high and mighty with your muscles
Just go ahead boy and pick up that hammer pick up that hammer)
He said get a rusty spike and swing it down three times
I'll pay you a nickel a day for every inch you sink it to
Go on and do what you say you can do

With a steep nosed hammer on a four foot switch handle
John Henry raised his back till it touched his heels
And the spike went thru the crosstie and split it half in two
35 cents a day for driving steel
(Swing, swing it boy swing you owe me two more swings)
I was born for drivin' steel

Well John Henry hammered in the mountain
He'd give a grunt and give a groan with every swing
The women folks from miles around heard him and come down
To watch him make cold steel ring
Lord what a swinger, just listen to the cold steel ring

But the bad boss come up laughing at John Henry
Said you full of vinegar now but you 'bout through
We're gonna get a steam drill to do your share of drivin'
And what's all them muscles gonna do, ha John Henry
Gonna take a little bit of vinegar out of you

John Henry said I feed four little brothers
And baby sister's walking on her knees
Did the Lord say that machines oughta take the place of living
And what's a substitute for bread and beans, I ain't seen it
Do engines get rewared for their steam

John Henry hid in a coalmine for his dinner nap
Had thirty minutes to rest before the bell
The mine boss hollered get up whoever you are and get a pick-axe
Give me enough coal to start another hell
And keep it burning, mine me enough to start another hell

John Henry said to his Captain a man ain't nothin' but a man
But if you bring that steam drill round
And I'll beat it fair and honest
I'll die with my hammer in my hand, but I'll be laughing
Cause you can't replace a steel drivin' man

There was a big crowd of people at the mountain
John Henry said to the steam drill how is you
Pardon me Mr Steam Drill, I suppose you didn't hear me,
I said how are you huh
Well can you turn a jack, can you lay a track,
can you pick and shovel too
Listen this hammer swinger's talkin' to you

Two thousand people hollered (go John Henry)
Then somebody hollered (the mountain's caving in)
John Henry told the Captain tell the kind folks don't worry
It ain't nothing but my hammer sucking wind, it keeps me breathing
This steel driver's muscle, I ain't tin

Captain tell the people move back further
I'm at the finish line and there ain't no drill
It's so far behind and yet it ain't got the brains to quiet it
When she blows up she'll scatter cross the hills Lord Lord
When she blows up she'll scatter cross the hills

Well John Henry had a little woman
I believe the lady's name was Polly Ann
Yes that was his good woman
John Henry threw his hammer over his shoulder and went on home
He lay down to rest his weary back and early next morning he said
Come here Polly Ann come here sugar
You know I believe this is the first time
I ever watched the sun come up that I couldn't come up
Take my hammer Polly Ann and go to that railroad
Swing that hammer like you seen me do it
And when you're swinging with the lead man they'll know
They'll know you're John Henry's woman
But tell them that ain't all you can do tell them
I can hoist a jack, I can lay a track, I can pick and shovel too
Ain't no machine can, that's been proved to you

There was a big crowd of mourners at the church house
The section hands laid him in the sand
Trains go by on the rails John Henry laid
They slow down and take off the hats the men do
When you've come to the place where John Henry's layin' restin' his back
Some of 'em say morning streel driver, you sure was a hammer swinger
Then they go by pickin' up a little speed
Clickety-clack clickety-clak clickety-clack clickety-clak
(Yonder lies a steel drivin' man oh Lord, yonder lies a steel drivin' man
Yonder lies a steel drivin' man oh Lord, yonder lies a steel drivin' man)

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • what did John Henry's father tell him in this version?
  • why would John Henry be in trouble if he lost his job to the steam hammer?
  • how many people came to watch John Henry race the steam hammer?

Source: The Legend of John Henry's Hammer, by Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. Weblink.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM