Folk Songs from the Southern Highlands - online songbook

Southern Appalachians songs with lyrics, commentary & some sheet music.

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John Henry
4. I'm not good looking; I'm not low down; I'm a jake walking papa just hanging around; I made this song but it may not rhyme;
I'm a jake walking papa having a good time.
5. My daddy was a gambler; he was a drunkard too; I'm going to drink jake have the jake walk blues. When I die, I give you my hand
To take bottle jake to the promised land.
The quest for the John Henry songs was inspired by the scholarly and extremely interesting work1 of Professor Guy B. Johnson, of the University of North Carolina. A study of this work at Montreat, North Carolina, in the summer of 1931, led to the questioning of Robert Kirby, colored porter at Geneva Hall. He assured us that he had an uncle who worked with John Henry. He "disremembered exactly" where John Henry lived, but he was sure that he was a North Carolina man. He insisted that this hero was only of average size and that he weighed about one hundred and forty pounds. He could, however, drive with a hammer in each hand, first with the right hand and then with the left. According to Robert Kirby, John Henry dropped dead while driving the hammer at "Big Ben" Tunnel.
Professor Johnson in his sympathetic study distinguishes clearly two types of John Henry songs the "work song type" and the "ballad type." To quote him: "The work song type is composed of short lines repeated several times, with pauses intervening for the stroke of pick or hammer and usually sung by a group."2 The "ballad type" has a somewhat different structure and more formal style. Professor Johnson through extensive advertising in Negro newspapers obtained eventually an old printed John Henry. While he is practically certain that this is not the original John Henry but a sort of composite version, yet it is evidence that the song did exist in printed form.
1 John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend. Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press, 1929.
2 John Henry, p. 2.

E-Book - An Annotated Compendium of Old Time American Songs by James Alverson III