Pete Seeger - JOHN HENRY

First performance: 20/04/2006


Coverinfo

Bruce recorded the song with The Seeger Sessions Band and released it on his 2006 album We Shall Overcome:  The album was recorded over the course of nine years at Thrill Hill East, Springsteen's home studio in Colts Neck, NJ: During these sessions, all of the album's songs were cut live in the living room of Springsteen's farmhouse – they were not rehearsed and all arrangements were conducted by Springsteen as he and the band played them. "We were doing trapeze without a safety net," Sam Barfeld told Backstreets magazine. "He plays the song for you once, a couple of arrangement ideas. Have enough time to scrawl out a chord chart, and then boom! You record."
 
John Henry was recorded in the second session
 
First Session : 02/11/1997 
 
  • Soon after the conclusion of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's short Vote For Change Tour, Springsteen was liaising with manager Jon Landau regarding material for a potential future second volume of the Tracks boxed set. Some of the leftover material from the 02 Nov 1997 session was being evaluated and out of those discussions came the idea of releasing this session material as a stand-alone album project. "Thanks to Jon Landau for another one of his 'I think we've got something here...' phone calls," Springsteen later wrote in the liner notes of the 2006 album.  
 
Second Session: 19/03/2005  
There were not enough songs recorded on 02 Nov 1997 to fill an album, so the original 1997 musicians were contacted again and an additional recording session took place on 19 Mar 2005, just prior to Springsteen embarking on his Devils & Dust Solo Acoustic Tour. Nine songs were recorded during the second session: ERIE CANAL,JOHN HENRY, O MARY DON'T YOU WEEP, PAY ME MY MONEY DOWN, OLD DAN TUCKER, FROGGIE WENT A COURTIN', SHENANDOAH, MRS. MCGRATH, and MICHAEL ROW YOUR BOAT ASHORE. Eight of the songs recorded during this second session ended up on the album. 
 
Third Session: 14/01/2006
Springsteen undertook a third and final studio session following the Devils & Dust Solo Acoustic Tour. There were eight songs recorded during the third session: JACOB'S LADDER, BUFFALO GALS, EYES ON THE PRIZE, HOW CAN I KEEP FROM SINGING?, AMERICAN LAND, BRING 'EM HOME, IF I HAD A HAMMER (THE HAMMER SONG), and 
WORRIED MAN BLUES.
 
 
 
 
Bruce performed the song 60 times: 
 
2006-04-20 - CONVENTION HALL, ASBURY PARK, NJ (Rehearsal Show)
2006-04-24 - CONVENTION HALL, ASBURY PARK, NJ (Rehearsal Show)
2006-04-25 - CONVENTION HALL, ASBURY PARK, NJ (Rehearsal Show)
2006-04-26 - CONVENTION HALL, ASBURY PARK, NJ (Rehearsal Show)
2006-04-30 - NEW ORLEANS FAIRGROUNDS, NEW ORLEANS, LA (New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival)
2006-05-05 - POINT THEATRE, DUBLIN, IRELAND
2006-05-07 - MANCHESTER EVENING NEWS ARENA, MANCHESTER, ENGLAND
2006-05-08 - HAMMERSMITH APOLLO, LONDON, ENGLAND
2006-05-09 - LSO ST LUKE'S, LONDON, ENGLAND (BBC)
2006-05-10 - PALAIS OMNISPORTS DE PARIS-BERCY, PARIS, FRANCE
2006-05-12 - DATCH FORUM, MILAN, ITALY
2006-05-14 - PAVELLÓ OLÍMPIC DE BADALONA, BARCELONA, SPAIN
2006-05-16 - HEINEKEN MUSIC HALL, AMSTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS
2006-05-17 - FESTHALLE, FRANKFURT, GERMANY
2006-05-20 - OSLO SPEKTRUM, OSLO, NORWAY
2006-05-21 - HOVET, STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN
2006-05-27 - TWEETER CENTER FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS, MANSFIELD, MA
2006-05-28 - NISSAN PAVILION, BRISTOW, VA
2006-05-30 - GERMAIN AMPHITHEATER, COLUMBUS, OH
2006-05-31 - VERIZON WIRELESS MUSIC CENTER, NOBLESVILLE, IN
2006-06-03 - GLENDALE ARENA, GLENDALE, AZ
2006-06-05 - GREEK THEATRE, LOS ANGELES, CA
2006-06-06 - SLEEP TRAIN PAVILION, CONCORD, CA
2006-06-10 - WELLS FARGO ARENA, DES MOINES, IA
2006-06-11 - XCEL ENERGY CENTER, ST. PAUL, MN
2006-06-13 - FIRST MIDWEST BANK AMPHITHEATER, TINLEY PARK, IL
2006-06-14 - BRADLEY CENTER, MILWAUKEE, WI
2006-06-16 - BLOSSOM MUSIC CENTER, CUYAHOGA FALLS, OH
2006-06-17 - DTE ENERGY MUSIC THEATRE, CLARKSTON, MI
2006-06-19 - SARATOGA PERFORMING ARTS CENTER, SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY
2006-06-20 - TWEETER CENTER AT THE WATERFRONT, CAMDEN, NJ
2006-06-22 - MADISON SQUARE GARDEN, NEW YORK CITY, NY
2006-06-24 - PNC BANK ARTS CENTER, HOLMDEL, NJ
2006-06-25 - PNC BANK ARTS CENTER, HOLMDEL, NJ
2006-10-01 - PALAMALAGUTI, BOLOGNA, ITALY
2006-10-02 - PALAISOZAKI, TORINO, ITALY
2006-10-04 - VILLA MANIN, UDINE, ITALY
2006-10-05 - ARENA DI VERONA, VERONA, ITALY
2006-10-07 - ARENA SANTA GIULIANA, PERUGIA, ITALY
2006-10-08 - PALAMAGGIÒ, CASERTA, ITALY
2006-10-10 - PALALOTTOMATICA, ROME, ITALY
2006-10-12 - COLOR LINE ARENA, HAMBURG, GERMANY
2006-10-13 - SPORTPALEIS AHOY, ROTTERDAM, THE NETHERLANDS
2006-10-19 - PLAZA DE TOROS DE LAS VENTAS, MADRID, SPAIN
2006-10-21 - ESTADIO CIUTAT DE VALÈNCIA, VALENCIA, SPAIN
2006-10-22 - PLAZA DE TOROS DE GRANADA, GRANADA, SPAIN
2006-10-24 - PALAU SANT JORDI, BARCELONA, SPAIN
2006-10-25 - PABELLÓN DEPORTIVO, SANTANDER, SPAIN
2006-10-28 - PARKEN STADIUM, COPENHAGEN, DENMARK
2006-10-29 - OSLO SPEKTRUM, OSLO, NORWAY
2006-10-30 - GLOBE ARENA, STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN
2006-11-06 - KÖLNARENA, COLOGNE, GERMANY
2006-11-07 - SPORTPALEIS, ANTWERP, BELGIUM
2006-11-09 - THE NEC ARENA, BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND
2006-11-12 - WEMBLEY ARENA, LONDON, ENGLAND
2006-11-14 - HALLAM FM ARENA, SHEFFIELD, ENGLAND
2006-11-17 - POINT THEATRE, DUBLIN, IRELAND
2006-11-18 - POINT THEATRE, DUBLIN, IRELAND
2006-11-19 - POINT THEATRE, DUBLIN, IRELAND
2006-11-21 - ODYSSEY ARENA, BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND

Songinfo

John Henry is an African American folk hero. He is said to have worked as a "steel-driving man"—a man tasked with hammering a steel drill into rock to make holes for explosives to blast the rock in constructing a railroad tunnel. According to legend, John Henry's prowess as a steel-driver was measured in a race against a steam-powered rock drilling machine, a race that he won only to die in victory with hammer in hand as his heart gave out from stress. The story of John Henry is told in a classic folk song, which exists in many versions, and has been the subject of numerous stories, plays, books, and novels.  The story of John Henry is traditionally told through two types of songs: ballads, commonly called "The Ballad of John Henry", and "hammer songs" (a type of work song), each with wide-ranging and varying lyrics. Some songs, and some early folk historian research, conflate the songs about John Henry with those of John Hardy, a West Virginian outlaw. Ballads about John Henry's life typically contain four major components: a premonition by John Henry as a child that steel-driving would lead to his death, the lead-up to and the results of the legendary race against the steam hammer, Henry's death and burial, and the reaction of his wife. The well-known narrative ballad of "John Henry" is usually sung in an upbeat tempo. Hammer songs associated with the "John Henry" ballad, however, are not. Sung more slowly and deliberately, often with a pulsating beat suggestive of swinging the hammer, these songs usually contain the lines "This old hammer killed John Henry / but it won't kill me.
 
 
 

John Henry: The Rebel Versions : Research of the song 
 
by Jim Hauser:
 
"In the year 2013 I sent a letter to folksinger Pete Seeger describing my research on John Henry. The letter included the key "John Henry said to the captain" verses from rebel versions one through eight of the ballad. He responded with a postcard (see below). His response was brief, but one point he did make was that I could spend 10 years traveling* and collecting more versions of "John Henry" and "still never know what the original song was." Of course, he is right. About half of a century passed between the time the ballad was originally created and the first time that its verses were written down by a collector or researcher for posterity. That is plenty of time for many significant changes to occur to the song as it was passed from one musician to another and as each new performer added his own unique touches to the song. What was the original tune? What were the original verses? And what meaning or meanings were attached to the song by its composer, its earliest performers, and their audiences? We are only left to wonder. Below is Pete Seeger's message to me. " 
 

Other cover versions

 
Songs featuring the story of John Henry have been recorded by many musical artists and bands of different ethnic backgrounds. Some of these include:

Bruce on the artist

In 2006, Bruce released  the album ' We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions' . The album contains Springsteen's interpretation of thirteen folk music songs associated with Pete Seeger. The project began in late 1997 when Springsteen agreed to contribute a recording for an upcoming Pete Seeger tribute album on Appleseed Recordings. "Growing up a rock n' roll kid I didn't know a lot about Pete's music or the depth of his influence," Springsteen later wrote in the liner notes of his 2006 album. He headed to the record store, came back with an armful of Pete Seeger records, and proceeded to investigate and listen to his music.
 
More info on Springsteenlyrics.
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
"As Pete and I traveled to Washington for President Obama's Inaugural Celebration, he told me the entire story of "We Shall Overcome". How it moved from a labor movement song and with Pete's inspiration had been adapted by the civil rights movement. That day as we sang "This Land Is Your Land" I looked at Pete, the first black president of the United States was seated to his right, and I thought of the incredible journey that Pete had taken. My own growing up in the sixties in towns scarred by race rioting made that moment nearly unbelievable and Pete had thirty extra years of struggle and real activism on his belt. He was ao happy that day, it was like, Pete, you outlasted the bastards, man!...It was so nice. At rehearsals the day before, it was freezing, like fifteen degrees and Pete was there; he had his flannel shirt on. I said, man, you better wear something besides that flannel shirt! He says, yeah, I got my longjohns on under this thing. And I asked him how he wanted to approach "This Land Is Your Land". It would be near the end of the show and all he said was, "Well, I know I want to sing all the verses, I want to sing all the ones that Woody wrote, especially the two that get left out, about private property and the relief office." I thought, of course, that's what Pete's done his whole life. He sings all the verses all the time, especially the ones that we'd like to leave out of our history as a people. At some point Pete Seeger decided he'd be a walking, singing reminder of all of America's history. He'd be a living archive of America's music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along, to push American events towards more humane and justified ends. He would have the audacity and the courage to sing in the voice of the people, and despite Pete's somewhat benign, grandfatherly appearance, he is a creature of a stubborn, defiant, and nasty optimism. Inside him he carries a steely toughness that belies that grandfatherly facade and it won't let him take a step back from the things he believes in. At 90, he remains a stealth dagger through the heart of our country's illusions about itself. Pete Seeger still sings all the verses all the time, and he reminds us of our immense failures as well as shining a light toward our better angels and the horizon where the country we've imagined and hold dear we hope awaits us. Now on top of it, he never wears it on his sleeve. He has become comfortable and casual in this immense role. He's funny and very eccentric. I'm gonna bring Tommy out, and the song Tommy Morello and I are about to sing I wrote in the mid-nineties and it started as a conversation I was having with myself. It was an attempt to regain my own moorings. Its last verse is the beautiful speech that Tom Joad whispers to his mother at the end of The Grapes of Wrath."

'Wherever there's a cop beatin' a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there's a fight 'gainst the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me Mom I'll be there'

"Well, Pete has always been there. For me that speech is always aspirational. For Pete, it's simply been a way of life. The singer in my song is in search of the ghost of Tom Joad. The spirit who has the guts and toughness to carry forth, to fight for and live their ideals. I'm happy to report that spirit, the very ghost of Tom Joad is with us in the flesh tonight. He'll be on this stage momentarily, he's gonna look an awful lot like your granddad who wears flannel shirts and funny hats. He's gonna look like your granddad if your granddad could kick your ass. ..

This is for Pete... "
 

Lyrics

Well, John Henry was a little baby
Sittin' on his dady's knee
He pick up a hammer and a little piece of steel,
And cried, "Hammer's gonna be the 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, man ain't nothin' but a man
But efore 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'll 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 swigin' 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 the blue bird he begin 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 hear John Henry's hammer ring, Lord, Lord
You can hear John Henry's hammer ring