Editors’ Note: You’ve heard this song before. “John Henry was a steel driver / oh he went down / yes he went down,” Mississippi John Hurt sings, sweetly. “John Henry was a little baby / sitting on his daddy’s knee,” according to Bruce Springsteen. John Lee Hooker hums “John Henry, John Henry / John Henry laid the hammer down.” Each is singing the same legend: the story of an African-American railroad hand who duels a steam-powered drill, wins, but dies—sometimes of a heart attack, sometimes of a burst vessel in his brain—from the exhaustion of the challenge.
There are thousands of versions of the song “John Henry,” and every one, Greil Marcus argues in “Guitar Drag,” is “an affirmation of the power of a single African American to deny and defeat the white power set against him even if it costs him his life, but not his dignity, with the song rolling down the decades from the 1920s.” “Guitar Drag” itself, featured in our fall issue, is a masterpiece, a stacked review of Colson Whitehead’s novel John Henry Daysand artist Christian Marclay’s video Guitar Drag. It is its own ballad of racial injustice.
As a companion to the essay, Marcus offers this playlist, his choice of the versions of “John Henry” that stand out among the others:
“John Henry,” from The Power and the Glory, 1945
Uncle Dave Macon
“The Death of John Henry,” 1925
Mississippi John Hurt
“Spike Driver Blues,” 1928
Walt Disney Studios
“The Legend of John Henry"
The 2000 Walt Disney version, narrated by Polly Ann
“John Henry,” from We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, 2006—the campfire singalong, and how a lot of people are learning the song now.
“New Railroad,” from Shaken by a Low Sound, 2006
Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys
“Nine Pound Hammer,” no date—recorded many times
“Tell Me Momma”
from Live 1966 “The Royal Albert Hall”
or this version, from Liverpool, 1966
“The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer,” from Blood, Sweat and Tears, 1963
“The Saga of John Henry,” from Think Ethnic! 1963
John Lee Hooker
“John Henry,” from The Unknown John Lee Hooker Made in 1949 in Detroit for a collector who insisted on Hooker playing authentic blues, which to him meant folk songs. This is the most abstract—absolutely modernist—version of “John Henry” I’ve ever heard.
“Lost in America,” from Goldbrick, 2006
If this doesn’t break your heart . . . and send it flying . . .