14 “My Name Is John Johanna” by Kelly Harrell & The Virginia String Band


February 12, 2009 by gadaya

Kelly Harrell’s World

Virginian Kelly Harrell was one of the pionneers singers in the history of country music. He recorded many sides for Okeh and Victor between 1925 and 1929 where his career stopped both because of the Depression and his inability to play an instrument. For the same reason, the record companies had to employ backing musicians for him throughout his recording career. He was a good hillbilly singer but unfortunately  the musical background on most of his records is not appropriate at all and sounds very “classical” and old-fashioned behind his rough voice. The exception is the few sides he recorded in 1927 with fellow musicians from Virginia, notably the great fiddler Posey Rorer. The two sides that Harry Smith included in the Anthology, “John Johanna” and “Charles Guiteau” were from that session. After this, Harrell returned to his previous work in the textile mills of Virginia and died in 1942.

-Kelly Harrell also wrote material that other country singers recorded, notably Jimmie Rodgers. Here’s a song that Harrell wrote, sang by the great yodel singer: Away out on the mountains-Jimmy Rodgers MP3

-Here are 16 sides that i selected, the first four ones being from the session with The Virginia String Band, the others are his versions of folk “standards” that would be recorded a lot over the years by many artists. (Other sides by Kelly Harrell appeared on previous compilations i’ve made.)


1.Oh, My Pretty Monkeykelly_harrell

2.In the Shadow of the Pine

3.I Want A Nice Little Fellow

4.I Love my Sweetheart The Best

5.Hand Me Down My Walking Cane

6.The Cuckoo She’s A Fine Bird

7.Bright Sherman Valley

8.Beneath The Weeping Willow Tree

9.O! Molly Dear Go Ask Your Mother

10.The Wreck On the Southern Old 97

11.I’m Going Back to North Carolina

12.Wild Bill Jones

13.I Was Born About 10.000 Years Ago

14.I Wish I Was A Single Girl Again

15.Rovin’ Gambler

16.New River Train



The John Johanna’s Variations

Usually known under the title “The state of Arkansas” the song tells, in the first person, the misfortunes of a wandering man who came to work in Arkansas, and whatever this guy’s name was, John Johanna, Sanford Barnes or Bill Stafford, he sure got a hard time down there. The song itself dates back to the ministrel era and the tune most used for it is common to many other songs (Maggie Walker, The Girl I Left Behind…). Again this kind of melody have a very modal and “bluesy” feel to it (you can sing it with minor or major chords accompaniement whithout changing a single note).

-The lyrics and the melody are on this two pages: one and two

-I’ve compiled 22 performances for you and as usual i checked and picked some field recordings from three websites which are goldmines for the traditionnal music lover: The John Quincy Wolf Folklore Collection (the tracks from this website appeared under the “Ozark Folksongs” name on my compilations), The Max Hunter Folksong Collection and The Digital Library of Appalachia


1.My Name is John Johanna, Kelly Harrell and The Virginia String Band, from the Anthology

2.My name is Sanford Barnes, Mrs. Bowen Stuart, from Ozark Folksongs

3.State of Arkansas, Mighty Ghosts Of Heaven, from “Mighty Ghosts of Heaven”

4.State of Arkansas, Earl Taylor & Jim McCall with The Stoney Mountain Boys, from “24 Bluegrass Favorites”96761295_107397b678

5.Old Arkansas, The Iron Mountain String Band, from “Walkin’ in the Parlor: Old Time Music of the Southern Mountains”

6.State Of Arkansas, Almanac Singers feat Woody Guthrie & Pete Seeger, from “Which Side Are You On? The Best Of The Almanac Singers”

7.State of Arkansas, Slim Critchlow, from “Cowboy Songs: Crooked Trail Holbrook”

8.Sanford Barnes, Bill Baker, from  The Max Hunter Folksong Collection

9.State of Arkansas, Tom Rush, from  “Trolling For Owls”

10.State Of Arkansas, Rosalie Sorrels, from “The Lonesome Roving Wolves”

11.State of Arkansas (My Name is Terry Roberts), Pete Seeger, from “Gazette, Vol. 1”

12.John Johanna, The Mill City Grinders, from “No Corn In the Crib”

13.State of Arkansas, Gus Mahon, from Ozark Folksongs

14.My Name Is John Johanna, John Cohen, from  “Stories The Crow Told Me”channels2

15.John Johanna, David Grisman with Mike Seeger, from “Dawg Duos”

16.John Johanna, The Mutineers, from “Where Mockingbirds Roam”

17.Bill Stafford, Virgil Lance, from  The Max Hunter Folksong Collection

18.Old Arkansas, Art Stamper, from “Wake Up Darlin’ Corey”

19.John Joe Hannah, Phil Jamison, from The Digital Library of Appalachia

20.John Joe Hannah, Peter Gott, from The Digital Library of Appalachia

21.My Name Is John Johanna, Charlie Parr, from “Tribute To The Anthology Of American Folk Music By Harry Smith”

22.Uncle Dave’s Travels Part 1 (Misery In Arkansas), Uncle Dave Macon, from “Classic Sides 1924 – 1938”

Photos: Art Stamper and Rosalie Sorrels (Newport Folk Festival 1966)



Here’s a gem of a clip: Gene Bluestein and his son Evo singing “The State of Arkansas”


4 thoughts on “14 “My Name Is John Johanna” by Kelly Harrell & The Virginia String Band

  1. Bisbonian says:

    Your site is incredible. What a work! Fantastic idea, and execution. The best compilation on Harry’s Smiths Anthology that I’ve seen; that I can imagine.

    On the subject of John Johanna/The Man From Arkansas, have you looked into the broader history of this song, i.e. Trail of the Buffalo/Buffalo Skinners, and Canada-I-O/Caledonia/The Wearing of the Blue?

    A version has even been done about the history of my home town, called The Ballad of Ben Johnson, by Becky Reyes. Great history.

  2. critmin says:

    Here’s my version!

  3. Jonathan Rey says:

    Intresting post, i really enjoyed reading it.

  4. critmin says:

    Here’s my ReverbNation url.


    You’ll find that I’ve recorded my own versions of many of your favorite tunes here. These are from my first two homespun albums: Reverend Dayglow Presents: “Blackjack Davy and the Psychomorbidelic Gospel Wagontrain Hour”; and “GODLESS TIMES.” The third, “Tadpole Messiah” is coming out di-rectlee.

    Why don’t ya pen me an epistle?

    Reverend Dayglow

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