Four For John Henry

By: Dopeburger

4 songs / 15:40

  1. 1 Vern and Ray / John Henry 02:44
  2. 2 Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee / John Henry 07:19
  3. 3 Merle Travis / John Henry, Jr. 02:40
  4. 4 Justin Townes Earle / They Killed John Henry 02:57

Here are a four songs inspired by the legend of John Henry, a steel-driving railroad worker who died after a race with a steam-powered hammer.

The versions of "John Henry" by Vern and Ray and Sonny and Brownie are pretty typical fare for the story: they mention Henry's premonition as a baby, the race, his burial, and his wife's reaction (though not necessarily in that order).

Merle Travis' "John Henry Jr." is a comical tale about a crap-shooting gambler, the exact opposite of his mythical folk hero father.

Justin Townes Earle combines Henry's story with that of Joe Hill and his grandfather to create a defiant meta-folk tale about hard working men who can't escape their fates: "They killed John Henry, but they won't kill me."

The themes of working class strength and the fight against modernization made the tune a popular one during the folk and bluegrass revival, and they still resonate today.