Folk Songs from the Southern Highlands - online songbook

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

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Ballads and Songs
i. When John Henry was a little boy He set upon his daddy's knee. He said when he died that nine pound hammer Would be the death of me, The hammer will be the death of me.
3. John Henry said before he died That he was a steel driving man; Before he would let that steam drill beat him down, He'd die with that hammer in his hand, He'd die with that hammer in his hand.
The similarities of this song to some of the John Henry songs will be recognized. It is fairly logical to assume that the John Henry stanzas preced­ed those of "Swannanoa Tunnel" by a few years. Professor Guy B. Johnson in a letter of April 28, 1932, remarks:
"The relation of 'Swannanoa Tunnel' to John Henry work songs is something of a puzzle, and I have not investigated the tune derivations as much as I should. The tune in Lunsford and Stringfield is fairly common as a John Henry work song tune. As you have probably noticed, it is very similar to the tune in my book, p. 80, transcribed from a Brunswick phono­graph record. I have never yet seen or heard a version of this tune which did not include a John Henry stanza, and I think this is pretty good evidence that the early history of the tune was closely connected with a work song about John Henry. The real derivation of the tune, of course, is probably to be found in an old hymn, but in its present secular usages, I am inclined to think that it has had a longer connection with John Henry than with the other work song types like 'Swannanoa Tunnel'."
See Campbell and Sharp, No. 91; Lunsford and Stringfield, p. 34; Journal, xxvi, 163.
"Swan O Tunnel." Obtained from Mrs. Rachel Brackett,granddaughter of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Harmon, Varnell, Georgia, February, 1932.

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