comment 0

Steel Driving Man

John Henry has to be one of the most recorded songs ever. The story is basically an American tall tale.  Like so many of these folk tales, I can’t remember not knowing it. I think I knew it before I understood the story. John Henry was a steel-driving man on the railroad. So many folk tales and songs come out of the building of the rail lines across the continent. He worked with a partner called a shaker, who held a steel bit while John Henry whacked it with a 9 pound hammer. I wouldn’t want to be the shaker, I can tell you that.

Most of you know the story. Along comes the modern world – and with it the steam drill, or steam-powered hammer – designed to blast through rock much faster than any mere human could. But John Henry was exceptional and he challenged the steam drill to a race through the mountain. As the story goes, John Henry won, but keeled over and died in victory. There are countless variations and version of the story and countless musical variations as well.

Here are a few interesting musical treatments John Henry. Let’s start in a blues setting with a powerful version by Mississippi Fred McDowell.

Here’s Furry Lewis, the great Memphis bluesman, from 1971. Furry, Like Mississippi Fred, plays slide in this performance, but his approach is far different.

John Henry is well known as a banjo tune as well in Old Time circles, and is usually played as an instrumental. Here is Glenn Godsey playing a version inspired by some of the players who developed a distinctive style in the Round Peak area of North Carolina.

Here’s another performed by Chuck Levy and Rafe Stefanini. I had an opportunity to meet Chuck Levy in June of 2014 when I attended the Midwest Banjo Camp. Chuck was leading a “slow jam”, for players like me who had not had much experience playing with others. This jam really helped build my confidence and I was able to move on to a faster “intermediate” jam, and more or less hold my own in a more challenging environment. Chuck was super-patient with a group of people of different skill levels all trying to figure out how to play with others. He is an excellent banjo player and a fine fiddle player as well as a really nice fellow.

Here’s one more banjo performance of the tune, this one by Dwight Diller. Diller is from West Virginia. He apparently lived with the Hammons family and is known as an inheritor of their musical tradition. This looks like a cell-phone video and it isn’t the best, but it gives a good idea of Diller’s approach to the music, which puts the rhythm first and emphasizes developing a groove. I find his playing to be very hypnotic.

Have your say...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s