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John Henry - Chords, Lyrics and Origins

Origins

John Henry is a traditional American song that pitches man against machine in a battle to the death (man, sadly, loses, though not without a heroic struggle!).  There are numerous different versions of this song.  Despite differences in the lyrics, all focus on the same event - the race between a mechanized steam hammer and a man to see who could beat down a section of railroad track the fastest.  John Henry has been recently recorded by Bruce Springsteen as part of his Seeger Sessions album.  The version of the song I've posted here is similar to that sung by Big Bill Broonzy that you can hear in the YouTube video. The chords are fairly simple - though the A7 chord at the end of the second line really makes John Henry come alive.  It's a lovely song to sing, and if you can ape even a little of Big Bill Broonzy's guitar style it will sound fabulous.

Chords

G                                                                                                   D
John Henry said to his captain, "A man ain't nothing but a man;

     G        G7         C                                 A7
Before I let your steam drill beat me down,

          G                    C                        G           C
I will die with that hammer in my hand,

             G                    C                        G
Yes I'll die with that hammer in my hand,

             G                    C                        G                 C
Yes I'll die with that hammer in my hand, lord, lord,

G                     C                        G
Die with that hammer in my hand."

Lyrics

John Henry said to his captain, "A man ain't nothing but a man;
Before I let your steam drill beat me down,
I will die with that hammer in my hand,
Yes I'll die with that hammer in my hand,
Yes I'll die with that hammer in my hand, lord, lord,
Die with that hammer in my hand."

John Henry said to his shaker, "Well man, why don't you sing?"
"I'm shaking twelve pounds from my hip on down.
Don't you hear that cold steel?
Why don't you hear that cold steel ring?
Why don't you hear that cold steel?
Why don't you hear that cold steel ring?

John Henry went down that railroad track with his twelve pound hammer by his side.
Yes he went down the track, but he never came back,
'Cos he laid down his hammer and,
Yes he laid down his hammer and he died,
He laid down his hammer and,
Yes he laid down his hammer and he died.

John Henry hammered in the mountain,
The mountain was so high;
The last word that I heard that poor boy say:
"Give me a cool drink of water before I,
Give me a cool drink of water before I die,
Give me a cool drink of water before I,
Give me a cool drink of water before I die."

John Henry had a little woman,
And that dress that she wore was red,
And the last word that I heard that little girl said,
She said, "I'm going where John Henry fell dead,
Yes, I'm going where John Henry fell dead;
I'm going where John Henry fell;
Yes, I'm going where John Henry fell dead.

John Henry was a little baby boy,
And he held him in the palm of his hand,
And that last thing that I heard that poor boy say:
"I'm going to be a  steel-driving man;
I'm going to be a little steel-driving man;
I'm going to be a steel-driving man."

Other American Folk Songs
Other Traditional Folk Songs