18 “Gonna die with my hammer in my hand” by The Williamson Brothers & Curry


March 22, 2009 by gadaya

The Williamson Brothers & Curry’s World

Arnold (fiddle) and Irving (guitar) Williamson were from Logan County, West Virginia, like two other Anthology artists Frank Hutchinson and close neighbour Dick Justice. They recorded a few sides in the twenties for Okeh with a banjo player named Curry (I’m pretty sure he didn’t played a five-string on this records but something like a uke-banjo or tenor). Judging by the six sides we know, they were an old-timey dance act and it’s too bad they didn’t record more because they were on of the best ever recorded in this genre. Their version of “John Henry” is, in my opinion, one of the greatest version of the song too. One can feel a strong influence of black music on all this West-Virginian musicians, in a very obvious way with Hutchinson and Justice who sang many Blues songs but also with the wild square-dance music of The Williamson Brothers.



2.Cumberland Gap

3.The Fun’s All Over

4.Lonesome Road Blues

5.The Old Arm Chair

6.Gonna Die With My Hammer in My Hand



The John Henry Variations

“John Henry” is the most famous american folksong of all time , one of the most recorded too by musicians of all kind and it took me a long time to select my favorite versions among the hundreds recorded. After a closer look at my personnal collection of cds and lps in search of “john Henry” tracks, i completed with things found on Emusic and on the folk collections available on the internet (Max Hunter’s collection, Digital Library of Appalachia). I ended up with 100 performances coming from all the important folk and vernacular genres of 20th century America; From work songs to Blues, Old-time string band to Bluegrass, folk to jazz, etc… Black and white traditionnal music are equally represented, as the figure of John Henry and his impact on the american mind knows no boundaries of race. I think the popularity of “John Henry” is not only due to the story it tells but most important how it tells it, which melody carries the tale of this heroic man. This tune is the quintessential american melody, full of pulse and  rhythm, going back and forth between the high and low notes, from a scream to a whisper… Among the many different instruments used for singing “John Henry”, the guitar used with a bottleneck to slide on the strings is the most appropriate (and one of the most widespread among blues guitarist) to render the “blue” notes and the whailing quality of the melody. The root of its pentatonic scale  and syncopated rhythm is obviously an african one and was carried here by the vocal and instrumental  genius of the african-american slaves that built the land. An important part of the “vitality” of american vernacular music is in fact due to known and unknown african-american musicians, who influenced white folk musicians, most strongly in the South, and left their mark on all popular music ever since.

-Lots of things have been written about John Henry and the  song about him, so much that it would be too long for me and above my capacities to write down for you all this informations here. Instead i’ll give a few links that will help you explore the John Henry’s myth.

– First, there’s this great website dedicated entirely to the subject that summarize every aspect of the legend and gives a bibliography, a short discography and some different lyrics versions.

The Wikipedia page about John Henry

-I also recommand a book about the railroad in american folksongs written by Norm Cohen called “The long,steel rail”. The chapter about “John Henry” is really excellent.

-I classified the 100 tracks under a few categories but i recommand that once you’ve downloaded the entire set to mix them as you want, make your personnal favorite list and most important have a fun and enjoyable listening experience

Part 1: Field Recordings & 78rpm records

1.Anonymous prisoners, from “Alan Lomax’s Prison Songs Vol.2: Don’tcha Hear Poor Mother Calling?”leadbelly

2.Arthur Bell, from “Afro-American Spirituals,worksongs and ballads”

3.Rich Amerson, from “Negro Folk Music of Alabama, Vol. 3”

4.Willie Turner, from “Negro Folk Music of Alabama, Vol. 6”

5.Ed Lewis, from “Southern Journey Vol. 5: Bad Man Ballads – Songs of Outlaws and Desperadoes”

6.Guitar Welch, Hogman Maxey, & Robert Pete Williams, from “Angola Prison Worksongs”

7.Blind John Davis, from “Field Recordings Vol. 2: North & South Carolina, Georgia…”

8.Reese Crenshaw, from “Field Recordings Vol. 2: North & South Carolina, Georgia…”

9.Leadbelly, from “Lead Belly’s Last Sessions”

10.”John Henry Blues”, Fiddlin’ John Carson, from “Vol. 1 (1923-1924) – Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order”

11.”Gonna Die With My Hammer in My Hand Curry”,The Williamson Brothers, from the Anthology

12.”John Henry Blues”, Two Poor Boys, from “American Primitive – Volume 2 – Pre-war Revenants 1897-1939”

13.Riley Puckett, from “Guitare Country : From Old Time To Jazz Times 1926-1950”

14.The Skillet Lickers, from “Volume 1 (1926-1927)”

15.Henry Thomas, from “Texas Worried Blues”

16.”John Henry Blues”, Earl Johnson, from “Mountain Blues”

17.Deford Bailey, from “Best of Blues Vol.1 : Harmonica Genius Deford Bailey “

18.”Death Of John Henry (Steel Driving Man)”, Uncle Dave Macon, from “Classic Sides New York 1924-1926”



1.Snooks Eaglin, from “Country Boy Down In New Orleans”

2.Etta Baker with Taj mahal, from “Sisters Of The South”

3.John Jackson, from “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down”modern_day_john_henry_cfrontpage_thumbnail_0

4.Pink Anderson, from “Gospel, Blues And Street Songs”

5.Hobart Smith, from “In Sacred Trust: The 1963 Fleming Brown Tapes”

6.John Cephas and Phil Wiggins, from “Richmond Blues”

7.Lonzie Thomas, from “Lonzie Thomas”

8.Muddy Waters And Memphis Slim, from  “Chicago Blues Masters, Vol. 1”

9.Furry Lewis, from “Shake ‘Em On Down”

10.Jesse Fuller, from “San Francisco Bay Blues”

11.Peg Leg Sam, from “Early In The Morning”

12.Lesley Riddle, from “Classic Mountain Songs from Smithsonian Folkways”

13.John Lee Hooker, from “Jack O’Diamonds”

14.Fred MacDowell, from “When I Lay My Burden Down”

15.Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, from “Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry Sing”

16.Ed Cabbell, from the Digital Library of Appalachia

17.Big Bill Broonzy with Pete Seeger, from “Big Bill Broonzy sings folk songs”

18.John Renbourn, from “John Renbourn”

19.Mike Seeger, from “Early Southern Guitar Sounds”

20.Kristina Olsen, from “Kristina Olsen”


Part 3: Country, Bluegrass, Old-time

1.Johnny Cash, from “Blood,Sweat and Tears”

2.Fred Cockerham and Kyle Creed, from “Clawhammer Banjo, Volume One”

3.The Stanley Brothers, from “Shadows Of The Past”wvhenry

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

5.Roscoe Holcomb, from “Friends Of Old Time Music”

6.Glen Stoneman, from “Southern Journey Vol. 2: Ballads and Breakdowns”

7.Doc Watson & Clarence Ashley, from “Original Folkways Recordings Of Doc Watson And Clarence Ashley, 1960-1962”

8.New Lost City Ramblers, from “Volume 5”

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

10.Bill Cornett, from “Mountain Music Of Kentucky”

11.Hazel and Alice, from “Pioneering Women of Bluegrass”

12.”New John Henry”, Bill Monroe, from “Bill Monroe sings Country Blues”

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

14. J.C. and Vernon Sutphin, from “The Stoneman Family – Sutphin, Foreacre, and Dickens”

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

16.Don Reno & Red Smiley, from “On Stage”

17. The Lilly Brothers, from “Early Recordings”

18.Merle Travis, from “The Guitar Player”

19.Doc Watson, from “Songs for Little Pickers”

20.Larry Richardson and the Blue Ridge Boys With Buddy Pendleton, from “Larry Richardson and the Blue Ridge Boys With Buddy Pendleton On Fiddle”

21.Art Rosenbaum, from “Five-string banjo”

22.Bruce Molsky & Big Hoedown, from “Bruce Molsky & Big Hoedown”


Part 4: Black banjo players and string bands/ Instrumentals

1.Joe Thompson and Odell Thompson, from “Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina & Virginia”

2.James Roberts, from “Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina & Virginia”dsc_0006crop

3.Homer Walker, from “Digital Library of Appalachia”

4.Leonard Bowles & Irvin Cook, from “Digital Library of Appalachia”

5.Big Sweet Lewis Hairston, from “Digital Library of Appalachia”

6.Blind James Campbell And His Nashville Street Band, from “B.J.C and his Nashville Street Band”

7.Jack Sims/Virgil Perkins, from “Folk Music U.S.A.: Vol. 1”

8.Howard Armstrong, from “Louie Bluie”

9.(autoharp) Kilby Snow, from “Masters of Old-time Country Autoharp”

10.(banjo) Winnie Winston, from “The Old-time Banjo Project”

11.(dulcimer) I-D Stamper, from “Digital Library of Appalachia”

12.(banjo) Casey Helton, from “Digital Library of Appalachia”

13.(fiddle and banjo) W.L. Gregory & Clyde Davenport, from “Digital Library of Appalachia”

14.(piano) Blind John Davis, from “Blind John Davis”

15.”John Henry Medley” (banjo), Tony Trischka, from “Territory”

16.(mandolin and guitar) Jim & Bill Fuller, from “Digital Library of Appalachia”

17.(piano) Janis Carper, from “Digital Library of Appalachia”

18.(autoharp) Harvey Reid, from “The Autoharp Album”

19.(accordion) John Willis Tolliver, from “Digital Library of Appalachia”

20.(Piano) Abe Spangler, from “Digital Library of Appalachia”


Part 5: The Folk Revival & Beyond

1.The Golden Gate Quartet & Josh White, from “Freedom: At the Library of Congress (1940)”

2.Pete Seeger, from “American Favorite Ballads,  Vol. 1”

3.Aaron Copland & London Symphony Orchestra, from “The Copland Collection: Orchestral & Ballet Works”aesop

4.”Legend Of John Henry”, Hoyt Axton, from “The Greatest Stars Of Folk Music”

5.John Jacob Niles, from “I Wonder As I Wander”

6.Lonnie Donegan, from “The Excellence of…”

7.Harry Belafonte, from “The Original Calypso and Other Folk Songs”

8.Woody Guthrie & Cisco Houston, from “American Roots- A History Of American Folk Music”

9.”The Saga Of John Henry “,The Smothers Brothers, from “Sibling Revelry”

10.Odetta, from “Live in concert”

11.Paul Robeson, from “The Originals – Spirituals”

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

13.Richard Dyer-Bennet, from “Richard Dyer-Bennet #5”

14.Bob Gibson, from “Yes I See”

15.Counterpoint, Robert De Cormier, conductor, from  “Let Me Fly: Music of Struggle, Solace, and Survival in Black America”

16.”Young John Henry”, The Shake ‘Em Ups, from ‘The Shake ‘Em Ups’

17.Bill Smith, from “Folk Jazz”

18.The Gun Club, from “Da Blood Done Signed My Name”

19.Bruce Springsteen, from “We Shall Overcome – The Seeger Sessions”

20.”John Henry Variations”, John Fahey, from “Death Chants, Breakdowns and Military Waltzes”



Photos: Leadbelly (everytime i try to picture John Henry i think of him), drawing of John Henry, statue of John Henry in West Virginia, “The Big Bend Tunnel” sign, a children’s book about John Henry

-Well, now to relax yourself, just watch Disney’s short animated movie about John Henry

-Let’s end with Mississippi Fred Mac Dowell

-Toward the end of the Anthology, we’ll come back to John Henry, this time with the work song variant sang by Mississippi John Hurt “Spike Driver’s Blues”….


17 thoughts on “18 “Gonna die with my hammer in my hand” by The Williamson Brothers & Curry

  1. inthealley says:

    Hi Again,

    When I noted the delay in doing this post, it occurred to me that it would be a VERY difficult one to for you to do …… well ….. YOU DID IT!! And not only that but in the most well-organised and quite extraordinary way.

    WELL DONE!!!!

  2. inthealley says:

    Hi yet Again,

    I have spent an entire evening listening obsessively to this greatest of American ballads in all its many glorious variations ….. THANK YOU. One small question, and excuse me if I am way off mark, but should it not be Odetta on Disk 5 of the variations rather than Odessa, singing with all that youthful power (RIP)?

  3. John Wurzelmann says:

    I am awed by the love and scholarship behind this post. The spiritual intensity of the song and legend are well captured, Whoever you are, I salute you! This is what gives people hope.

  4. Wow. No wonder it took so long to get this one done! This is quite an impressive collection …

    I should mention here that I’ve always loved Gillian Welch’s references to the John Henry story on her Time (The Revelator) — in the songs “Elvis Presley Blues” and “I Dream a Highway”.

    In both cases, she seems to be thinking about songwriters and performers as workers, just as surely as John Henry was a worker — and it sometimes seems the best of them have been known to die doing the job.

    I also love they way Bob Dylan, in Love and Theft, says “I got my hammer ringing, baby, but the nails ain’t going down!”

  5. Shakib says:

    Excellent job, I love this song and this post helped me to get to know many versions I wasn’t aware of. Thank you, thank you.

  6. […] [https://oldweirdamerica.wordpress.com/] 1 aprile 2009 Nessun Commento […]

  7. […] e Johnny Cash per esempio). Lo sapevo che ne esistevano tante altre versioni e oggi ho trovato questo fantastico post che ne fornisce un elenco dettagliato ed estremamente curato. Ci sono anche i file […]

  8. James Neal says:

    I see no mention of Colson Whitehead’s “John Henry Days” – http://www.readinggroupguides.com/guides3/john_henry_days1.asp

  9. Hulaboy says:

    Thanks so much – I’ve always wanted to hear something along these lines. Your hard work is appreciated!

  10. Bisbonian says:

    Wonderful post, and great selection. Unfortunately, I cannot download the fifth segment…it tells me that download has been deleted, or something like that.

  11. dscott says:

    hey, what a great site; i’m always coming back to it. you probably know but part 5 of your die with a hammer downloads isn’t there any more. thanks for what you’re doing, it’s a great thing.

  12. John B. says:

    I should have done this earlier today when I linked to your site . . . Thank You for this site, and for this page in particular! I have been a big fan of Harry Smith’s anthology, and it was through his work that I became aware of the pervasiveness of the John Henry legend via the different versions of the ballad. When I dreamed up putting together a lesson on John Henry for my class, I wasn’t looking forward to the virtual leg-work in tracking down/listening to/deciding on which versions of the ballad to play for my students–and then I found your place. Again, thanks–and I’ll be acknowledging your place in the materials my students get.

    Thank you again!

  13. Keith says:

    I just ran across this site and would love to get the last group of recordings (part 5), but the link is broken. It states the filename is wrong or it has been deleted.

  14. Lutzklose says:

    part 5 is also offline. Again, could you please reup this?

  15. I had a 78 of Salty Holmes that was supposedly recorded in December 1947. Did you listen to that version while doing your research? Unfortunately the record broke during my last move. I have a video of the record playing, but due to copyright laws, I can’t share it with you. YouTube has flagged it. It’s really unfortunate that corrupt music laws are going to cause these old recordings to vanish!

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