John Henry – Big Bill Broonzy

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John Henry – Big Bill Broonzy


I’ve been meaning to post this track for some time but for some reason haven’t got around to it until now. It was recorded in Germany in 1951 and is a solo performance by legendary guitarist, blues singer and guitarist Big Bill Broonzy. The song, often called the Ballad of John Henry, tells the story of the folk hero John Henry, a man whose job was to use a 12lb hammer drive a steel drill into a rock to make holes for explosives to blast the rock in constructing a railroad tunnel. In the legend, John Henry is pitted against a steam-powered drill. He beats the machine, but is exhausted by his efforts and dies with his hammer in his hand.

By the way, you will hear reference in the song to a “shaker”. This was a man whose job it was to hold the drill – an object like a chisel – against the rock while it was struck by the hammer, and move it about to loosen the rock around it. I dread to think what happened if the hammerman missed the drill.

The historical facts around the location of the story of John Henry and indeed the identity of the hero are open to debate, but it’s a wonderful song and this is a brilliant and very characteristic performance of the song by Big Bill Broonzy whose singing, playing, and announcement to the song, will bring it all back to anyone lucky enough to hear him in the flesh. Bill Broonzy was on a European tour at the time this record was made, and I have back at home a very old LP of him singing and playing at the Dancing Slipper in West Bridgford, in Nottingham. I also have a copy of the album from which this performance is taken, the other side of which is by Graham Bell and his Australian Jazz Band. The full introduction to John Henry begins with Bill Broonzy saying rather sardonically “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I’m glad to be here too, don’t think I ain’t” before the rest of it that you hear.

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