The Occasional Story

Stories and songs. No Utubes

John Henry

Children love to hear the same story again and again. Once I asked my son why he wanted to hear Hats For Sale again (for the nth time in a row!!!). He responded simply: “Because it’s a good story”. So here’s John Henry, a song I love to play because, well…because it’s a good story and I love to play it.


The story, of course, tells of this giant, Afro-American workingman, a steel-drivin’ man, who challenged the power of the machine, the steam drill. And who died with a hammer in his hand. A mythologically-large folk-hero, John Henry was apparently a real guy, who, according to some accounts, died in West Virginia in 1871 trying to dig through a mountain. His last words were: “Gimme a cool drink of water before I die”.

The harmonica riff is copied from Sonny Terry, one of my personal heroes.

23 responses to “John Henry”

  1. hi Stephen, John Henry nowadays could be seen as a statement about job losses – by increasing faster and faster development of technologies: the end of the line for many photographers, printers, book writers, journalists, musicians etc. – greetings by

  2. I found out about John Henry’s story through Nickelodeon’s Legends of the Hidden Temple show so many years ago, if memory serves me right!

    1. Yes, it’s a great story!

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  7. P.S.:
    I’ve just uploaded TAKE THIS HAMMER – played on my Dobro / resonator steel guitar – with a similar protest message:

    1. Thanks. You know what a great song it is. It’s always a pleasure to play it.

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  9. good comment by Shimon: “…still around today, between men who see themselves as work horses, and the forces of automation…”

  10. hi Steve,
    in Europe we at first learned the version of skiffle Lonnie Donegan – it took some time to discover Leadbelly – I like your new version very much – and: Sonny Terry would applause too …

    1. I learned this song mostly from Sonny and Brownie.

  11. I first heard this song many years ago, and thought of it as one of many that celebrated ‘larger than life’ figures in American history. But listening to it now, I felt really sad. It is about the competition, still around today, between men who see themselves as work horses, and the forces of automation.

    1. That’s true. I think that’s what Marx (not Groucho) said: that there’s a dialectic between classes, a ceaseless interplay and conflict between classes or between movements. The plain heroism of John Henry still rings true.

  12. I have 3 children (all adults now) and yes, I’ve heard that one many times – tell us the story about (fill in the blanks same story) 🙂

  13. …and “because I like to hear it!”!!!!

    1. Thanks Marina. You know I’ve played/posted John Henry a number of times already on this blog. If you encourage me like this, I’ll keep on doing it!

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About Me

Bumba’s real name is Stephen Baum, and he was born and raised in the Bronx, a product of the NYC school system. All the same, he has written two fine, literary novels – one is called Up in the Bronx, and the other is called One Life or the Lives of Chester Knowles. Check them out on Bumba Books. Also included in this blog are a number of Bumba’s original songs, plus a lot of traditi0nal country music – all played by Bumba and his friend Maybank. You’ll also find some poems, odes, stories, humorous pieces, and a lot of didactic stuff about science, especially paleontology, and numbers.Lots of stuff about numbers. Watch out.


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