Diggin: Big Boy Henry’s “John Henry”

Big Boy Henry

Listen: John Henry

“John Henry the Steel Driving Man,” is one of America’s most popular folk songs. It is about a legendary spike driver who challenged the new steam powered drill in driving a long spike into solid rock, building a train tunnel in West Virginia. This ballad song was first popular among the black community and quickly spread outward to the white community, one of early cross-over hits. From then to now “John Henry” is played by every type of musical group imaginable. This song is often sung with similar words, but in the real old traditions the music is played in the same melody but the singer interprets the song and sings his own lyrics. As time passes one rarely meets or hears such creativity. When I asked the North Carolina Patriarch of the Blues, Big Boy Henry, to sing the classic, he and his friend Lightin’ Wells let it rip. Lightnin’ is playing a totally expert rendition of the guitar part with a metal slide on his finger on antique metal guitar and Big Boy rolls out a set of lyrics I have never heard. He explains this all in this track. A true creative man of words.

– Timothy Duffy
This and many other versions of John Henry are available on this month’s Listener’s Circle! You can still sign up to get it!

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