1. *John Henry
Performed by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee (1958).
The ballad of John Henry is claimed by several different places as a true account of a real figure,usually in the 1860s or '70s. As the written version in this volume puts it, "Some say he came from Georgia, / And some from Alabam', / But it's wrote on the rock at the Big Bend Tunnel, / That he was an East Virginia man . . ." (This recorded version names a different set of states.) What is not contested is that many John Henrys—black laborers who worked for railroad companies and for companies licensed by prison systems—wielded hammers heroically during these years to build the railroads. In the song's tragic drama, John Henry's antagonist, the steam-driven drill, is real enough, too, as an emblem of the modern machines that help humankind as they also cost them their jobs, their good health, and sometimes even their lives. Aside from this archetypal contest—marking the end of an era—what endures best here is the image of the black man arising from the black community itself: as a mighty, prophetic, fearless family man who "died with his hammer in his hand." Note the presence, in many versions, of the black woman too, John Henry's wife, Polly Ann: "When John Henry took sick, / She took his hammer, / Polly hammered like a natural man." In this musical version of the community-told tale (often recited without music), at least three solo voices are raised: the two singers' voices along with the harmonica as Amen-chorus and as the hammer swung by Polly Ann—among other roles.
From Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry's album Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry Sing (recorded in 1957 for the Folkways label).
2. Frankie and Johnny
Performed by Champion Jack Dupree.
3. Stagger Lee
Performed by Lloyd Price (1959).
4. The Signifying Monkey
Performed by Oscar Brown Jr.