John Henry was a former slave who worked on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad in the years following the Civil War. He was one of a thousand or so men who spent nearly three years drilling a hole through Big Bend Mountain in Talcott, West Virginia. An unrecorded number of predominantly African-American men died working in the thick smoke and intense heat of the tunnel. When his boss introduced a steam-drill that threatened the jobs of the workers, John Henry engaged the machine in a contest to prove that it was no match for man.
From the moment these events occurred, the legend grew in story and song as it moved about the country. Work songs that invoked the spirit of John Henry came into prominence. These songs, sometimes referred to as hammer songs, have only a few lyrics repeated with a strong rhythm to facilitate hammering or other manual labor. Ballads that told the whole story from John Henry’s birth through his death were also widespread. Matthew Sabatella combined lyrics from various ballads and hammer songs and set them to his own melody to create “This Old Hammer.”
This old hammer killed John Henry
But it won’t kill me, Lord
No, it won’t kill me
When John Henry was a baby on his mama’s knee
He picked up a hammer and steel
He said “This hammer’s gonna be the death of me, Lord, Lord
This hammer’s gonna be the death of me”
Well, the captain told John Henry “Gonna bring a steam drill ’round.
Gonna put that steam drill on the job
Just watch that steam drill drive that steel down, Lord, Lord
Just watch that steam drill drive that steel down”
John Henry told his people “A man is just a man,
But I can beat any trap that has ever been made
Or I’ll die with my hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord
I’ll die with my hammer in my hand”
John Henry just getting started, steam drill halfway down
John Henry said “You’re ahead right now,
But I’ll beat you on the last go-around, Lord, Lord
I’ll beat you on the last go-around”
Well, the men who built that steam drill, they thought they were mighty fine
John Henry, he drove his fourteen feet
That steam drill, it only made nine, Lord, Lord
That steam drill, it only made nine
John Henry told his woman “Polly fix my bed.
I want to lie down and get some rest.
For I’ve got an awful roaring in my head, Lord, Lord
I’ve got an awful roaring in my head”
Now every train that leaves the station and heads into Big Bend
Blows a whistle for poor old John
In the tunnel you can hear his hammer ringing in the dark, Lord, Lord
You can hear his hammer ringing in the dark