The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #155531   Message #3659212
Posted By: Joe Offer
11-Sep-14 - 02:08 AM
Thread Name: Lyr Req: John Henry (from Dave Van Ronk)
Subject: ADD: John Henry (Dave Van Ronk version)
I found out that all those Web pages that claim to have the Dave Van Ronk version of "John Henry," don't.

This is from Smithsonian Folkways CD FW03818, Ballads, Blues, and a Spiritual, a 1959 recording by Dave Van Ronk.

I downloaded the liner notes, and then listened to the CD and made corrections.


John Henry was a little baby,
Setting down on his mammy's knee;
Well, that Big Bend tunnel on that C & O Road
Is gonna be the death of me,
It is gonna be the death of me.

Well, the captain he said to John Henry,
Gonna bring that steam drill around,
Gonna put that steam drill out on the job,
Whup that steel on down,
Whup that steel on down.

Well, John Henry said to his captain,
Well, a man ain't nothing but a man.
Well, before I'll see that steam drill beat me down,
I'll die with my hammer in my hand,
I'll die with my hammer in my hand.

Well, oh John Henry, oh John Henry,
Well, the blood am running red,
Well, before I die with this hammer in my hand
I beat him to the bottom but I'm dead,
I beat him to the bottom but I'm dead.

This is one of the most widely dispersed of all Negro ballad creations, and certainly one of the finest of native American ballads. The legend of the great Negro steel driver is believed to have arisen from the building of the Big Bend tunnel in West Virginia in 1870-1872. No documentary evidence of a John Henry having actually existed has ever been uncovered, though the song has been subjected to extensive study, including two long monographs, and any number of shorter investigative pieces. Such problems never bother the singers from whom the ballad has been collected, for to the folk Negro of the South John Henry was a symbol of tremendous magnitude. There is no mistaking the identification of the traditional singer and his audience with the heroic proportions of the giant steeldriver, for he is, as John Greenway has aptly described him, "... the apotheosis of their own unrealized potentia1ities...a Negro who beat the white man at his own game."
For this recording Van Ronk has tuned his guitar in C, as follows:
E C G C G C, a tuning learned from Dick Rosmini of New York, who learned it from Blind Gary Davis.