A Words Look: John Henry by Bruce Springsteen

I’ve always been drawn to the legend of John Henry. Man vs. machine. Hammer and steel. Muscle and determination. JH is like a magnet to quiet, big guys like myself. One of the first books I remember was the Ezra Keats version of the legend. I think it was the cover that caught me. John Henry is such an inspiration in my life, I’m working on a new middle grade story built around him and other American legends.

I also remember the Ballad of John Henry song. Magical. This version from Bruce Springsteen & The Seeger Sessions Band is one of the best out there. In fact, The Seeger Sessions is a great piece of work by a great artist. Here are the lyrics and a live performance video from The Boss.

John Henry

Well John Henry was a little baby
Sittin’ on his daddy’s knee
He picked up a hammer and
a little piece of steel
And cried, “Hammer’s gonna
be death of me, Lord, Lord
Hammer’s gonna be the death of me”

Now the captain he
said to John Henry
“I’m gonna bring that
steam drill around
I’m gonna bring that
steam drill out on these tracks
I’m gonna knock that
steel on down, God, God
I’m gonna knock that
steel on down”

John Henry told his captain
“Lord a man ain’t noth‘ but a man
But before I let that steam drill
beat me down
I’m gonna die with a hammer
in my hand, Lord, Lord
I’ll die with a hammer in my hand”

John Henry driving
on the right side
That steam drill driving
on the left
Says, “Fore I let your
steam drill beat me down
I’m gonna hammer
myself to death, Lord, Lord,
I’ll hammer my fool self to death”

Well captain said to John Henry
“What is that storm I hear?”
John Henry said, “That
ain’t no storm captain
That’s just my hammer
in the air, Lord, Lord
That’s just my hammer in the air”

John Henry said to his shaker
“Shaker, why don’t you sing?
Cause I’m swingin’ thirty pounds
from my hips on down
Yeah, listen to my cold steel
ring, Lord Lord

Listen to my cold steel ring”

John Henry he hammered
in the mountains
His hammer was striking fire
But he worked so hard;
it broke his heart
John Henry laid down his hammer
and died, Lord, Lord

John Henry laid down his hammer and died

Well, now John Henry
he had him a woman
By the name of Polly Ann
She walked out to those tracks
Picked up John Henry’s hammer
Polly drove steel like a man, Lord, Lord
Polly drove that steel like a man

Well every, every Monday morning
When a blue bird he began to sing
You could hear John Henry
from a mile or more
You could hear John Henry’s hammer
ring, Lord, Lord
You can hear John Henry’s hammer ring
I say, You can John Henry’s
hammer ring, Lord, Lord
You can John Henry’s
hammer ring

Live on, John Henry!

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