17 “John Hardy was a desperate little man” by The Carter Family


March 5, 2009 by gadaya

The Carter Family’s World

The Carter Family hold a very special place in the history of american vernacular music, their influence and legacy is immense, not only on country music but also on folk and rock artists of the past fifty years and the misterious charm of their music continues to haunt many comtemporary artists. Yet, the music of Sara, Maybelle and A.P. Carter  seems deceptively simple when you first hear it and it didn’t changed much during the fifteen years they played together. Most of the time Sara was the lead singer and played the autoharp or guitar backup while Maybelle was singing harmony and played the melody and the chords with her distinctive and unique guitar style. From time to time, A.P. Carter sang bass on the chorus or even sang lead on a few songs, his presence being in the same time very discrete but adding a unique touch to many of the Carter’s performances. Their repertoire was rooted in the folk traditions of the Virginia mountains where they lived: the folk ballads, the sentimental songs, the shape-note singing of the church, the Blues of the african-american, all this was melted in a new and unique style they applied to all their songs. It was A.P who was collecting all the time new material for their recordings, going “song hunting” in the small towns and cities of the South, sometimes with the help of a black songster called Lesley Riddle whose songs were included in the Carters’s repertoire. There’s a immediacy and in the same time a certain distance in their recordings that is quite hard to describe with words, at least for me, but the magical alchemy of Sara’s singing and Maybelle’s guitar playing makes one of the greatest american music ever recorded.g_08

-On this page about the documentary movie “Will the circle be unbroken”, you can explore the history of the Carter Family through texts and photos.

-When the Carters came down to Bristol, Tennessee in 1927 to a recording session organized by Ralph Peer for the Okeh records company, they were just trying their luck, like many other mountain folks did in those years, at least it would provide a few days break from the daily routine life of hard work they had in their  Clinch Mountain home. Read more on those legendary sessions here.

-I strongly recommend the biography “Will you miss me when i’m gone”, written by Mark Zwonitzer and Charles Hirshberg. An essential reading for all the Carters fans…

-All of the sides recorded by the original Carter Family (Sara,Maybelle and A.P) are available at a very cheap price on two JSP box-sets and there’s also a big box set issued by Bear Family, much more expensive but it contains a big hardcover book of 220 pages with essays, photos and lyrics to all the songs they recorded.

-If you don’t have already one of these, I offer you for now all the songs they recorded on may, 1928, the session which includes “John Hardy was a desperate little man”, the first Carter track that appear on the Anthology. There will be more in the future…


1.Meet Me By The Moonlight Alone

2.Little Darling Pal Of Mine

3.Keep On The Sunny Side

4.Anchored In Love

5.John Hardy Was A Desperate Little Man

6.I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow

7.Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone

8.River Of Jordan

9.Chewing Gum

10Wildwood Flower

11.I Have No One To Love Me (But The Sailor On The Deep Blue Sea)

12.Forsaken Love



The John Hardy Variations

“John Hardy” stands right next to “John Henry” as one of the most popular “figure” in the folk song tradition (In the Anthology too, they are next to each other). In fact, many people  combined the two songs and many  scholars confused the two characters as Alan Lomax once said. Both were black railroad workers but their story is quite different. The historical John Hardy killed a man during a crap game and was hanged for his crime. Before his execution he wanted to make peace with God so they sent a preacher and went to the river to baptise him. On the scaffold he claimed his repentance for his crime and probably sang some verses that would be included in the ballad that bore his name. The origin of the song itself is hard to determinate as it can be a mix of spontaneous verses of work songs and white balladry put around the story of John Hardy’s life. But, like many other songs, it was sang by black folks before whites began to sing it. And now, except for the famous Leadbelly rendition of the song and maybe a few other, all the recordings of the song that i heard were by white people.

-To read the whole story about John Hardy, the historical facts and the origins of the song, go to this page.

On this page, you’ll read more about John Hardy’s execution and have the lyrics of the Carter Family’s version

-I’ve compiled 36 versions split in two parts. The song became a very popular instrumental piece in the folk and bluegrass world in the last fifty years so i featured many examples on guitar, banjo, and even dulcimer between the singing versions. There’s also a jazz one by The Duke Ellington Orchestra and a rock one by The Gun Club. The tune of the song has a “bluesy” feel to it that reminds us of his black origin and most of the performers put their own twist into it whithout changing the original tune. The variations in the lyrics are  very small in the contemporary performances compared to the old ones. In the Roy Harvey’s version, another folksong about a hanging (“The maid freed from the gallows” or “Gallows Pole”)” is mixed with the ballad of John Hardy.

TRACK LIST of part one:

(the title is “John Hardy” except where indicated)john-hardy-hanging

1.Lead Belly, from “Classic African American Ballads”

2.”John Holland”, Almeda Riddle, from Ozark Folksongs

3.Dick Rosmini, from “Adventures for 12 String, 6 String and Banjo”

4.Jake Krack, Bob Buckingham,Todd Clewell, Amy Buckingham, from the Digital Library of Appalachia

5.Odis Bird, from The Max Hunter Folksong Collection

6.Luther Russell, from “Lowdown World (And Other Assorted Songs)”

7.Tommy Jarrell, Oscar Jenkins and Fred Cockerham, from “Down to the Cider Mill”

8.Buell Kazee, from “Buell Kazee Sings and Plays”

9.Norman Blake, from “Live At McCabe’s”

10.Duke Ellington, from “Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra 1941”

11.Glen Smith, from “Clawhammer Banjo, Volume Three”

12.Country Gentlemen, from “On The Road (And More)”

13.Tony Rice, from “True Bluegrass Essentials”

14.Bonnie Russell and the Russell Family, from “Mountain Dulcimer Galax Style”

15.Chris Smither, from “Leave the Light On”

16.The Gun Club, from “Miami”

17.”John Hardy Blues”, Roy Harvey & Jess Johnston & the West Virginia Ramblers, from “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of: Super Rarities & Unissued Gems Of The 1920s & 30s”

18.”Johnny Hart”, Woody Guthrie, from “Muleskinner Blues: The Asch Recordings, Vol. 2”



TRACK LIST of part two:
1.Ollie Gilbert , from The Max Hunter Folksong Collection

2.Paul Clayton, from “Dulcimer Songs and Solos”

3.Tommy Jarrell, from “Legacy of Tommy Jarrell, Volume 3: Come and Go with Me”

4.Glenn Yarbrough, from “The Roots Of Americana Folk & Blues”

5.Wayne Henderson, from “Made & Played”

6.Frank Proffitt, from “Frank Proffitt Sings Folk Songs”

7.Drunk, from “Phineas Gage”

8.J. Thibodeau, from “Everyday Shoes”

9.Pete Seeger , from “American Ballads”

10.Koerner, Ray & Glover, from “The Return of Koerner, Ray & Glover”

11.Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, from “Best of the Vanguard Years”

12.Walter Williams, from “Kentucky Mountain Music, Part 4”

13.Ernest V. Stoneman, from “The Unsung Father Of Country Music”

14.Dock Boggs, from “His Folkways Years 1963-1968”

15.John Hardy Fields Ward, Glen Smith & Wade Ward, from “Bluegrass from the Blue Ridge: A Half Century of Change – Country Band Music of Virginia”

16.Manfred Mann, from  “At Abbey Road”

17.Alvin Youngblood Hart, from  “Territory”

18.Peggy Seeger, from “Saturday Night at the Bull and Mouth”

-Here are two other great versions on Youtube:

8 thoughts on “17 “John Hardy was a desperate little man” by The Carter Family

  1. Wildman Mikey says:

    I am still really enjoying your blog – thank you for the continuing work you are doing!

  2. Jonathan Kamholtz says:

    This continues to be one of the most interesting sites out there. Thoughtfully collected, and excellent music. Thanks, thanks, thanks.

  3. […] The Old, Weird America collected 36 versions of the traditional folk tune “John Hardy”. […]

  4. patoche says:

    Hello from france ! Truly a labour of love you do here…
    Really interesting music and reading ,thank you very much.

    Some files seem to require password , can you help me?

  5. Ron McConnell says:


    Ambitious project. Great progress! Keep going!
    The cartoon of AP and Sara is interesting.
    Are there more cartoons on the Carter Family?

    FYI, there is forthcoming labor of love Carter Family documentary.
    that needs a bit more funding to complete editing.

    I especially look forward (with patience) to
    Vol 2, Social Songs
    26. “Little Moses” — The Carter Family (1932)
    Vol 3, Songs
    11. “Single Girl, Married Girl” — The Carter Family (1927)

    I now plan to get Mother the “Anthology …” CD box set
    for her 92nd birthday on Oct 24. I was having trouble
    with ideas for old time music that she didn’t have.

    Ron McConnell
    – 3rd cousin-in-law to J. R. “Johnny” Cash


    Letter from a box Mother pulled
    from under a bed a few years ago.


    Carl and Mabel McConnell
    Hiltons, Virginia, 24258
    June 6, 1971

    Sara and Coy W. Bayes
    PO Box 73
    Angels Camp, California 95222


    Dear Carl and Mabel,

    ” …
    I guess Dale has [not] had that hair cut off yet.
    I won’t own him until he does.
    These hippies out here look terrible, etc.
    But nothing we can do about it.
    So there you are.

    don’t know when we will be back your way
    not till winter is over no way

    write any time.
    always glad to glad to hear from any one
    back there.”

    Love to all,
    Sara and Coy

    [Sara Dougherty Carter/Bayes]
    [Dale Jett, AP’s grandson]

  6. Ron McConnell says:

    I wrote,
    “FYI, there is forthcoming labor of love Carter Family documentary.
    See …
    but I see the web site address for Beth Harrington
    was deleted, perhaps there is a restriction on that.
    A Google for
    Beth Harrington, Carter Family
    will find her site.
    She likes the AP and Sara cartoon. 🙂

    Ron McConnell

  7. Lutzklose says:

    please could you reup part 2 of the variations?

  8. […] more info and music of the Carter Family, see my other posts about “John Hardy”, “Engine 143″ and “Little […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Thanks for supporting “The Old Weird America” by making a donation

Please make some donations

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 581 other subscribers



%d bloggers like this: