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KPLU All Blues host John Kessler has expanded "The Blues Time Machine," which has been a popular segment on his weekend blues shows. The weekly series tracks one great blues song through history - from its earliest recording to its latest and sometimes, with some surprising interpretations. "The Blues Time Machine" airs on KPLU on Fridays at 12:10 p.m. during the "Blue Plate Special," and on All Blues Saturdays and Sundays at 8 and 11 p.m.

John Henry's legend lives through music

Ken Thomas

The Legend of John Henry is an iconic myth of American railroad history, a battle between man and steam drill. One of the intriguing things about the legend is that no one knows for sure if John Henry existed. At least part of the myth is based  on historical events from the mid-1800’s; some say the source lies in Alabama, others point to West Virginia, both places where significant railroad tunnels were dug.

The song “John Henry” has been a part of American culture since the 1870’s where it was part of the oral tradition of “hammer songs”, songs timed to the beat of a hammer or axe. While not strictly a blues song, it arose from the same African-American culture that produced blues, and has been performed by many important blues players, including Big Bill Broonzy and Leadbelly.

Memphis Slim and Willie Dixon performed “John Henry” in 1960. They each had vital roles in the development of modern blues: Memphis Slim as one of the greatest pianists, and Willie Dixon as one of the key songwriters and producers for Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Koko Taylor.

One year earlier in 1959, historian Alan Lomax was traveling through the South, making recordings of local and indigenous music. He recorded Mississippi prisoner Ed Young, singing “John Henry” as he chopped wood, the lyrics timed to the swing of his axe. This is probably more what the song sounded like in the 1870’s. Here's a rare 1966 film clip of Texas prisoners singing and swinging axes:

In 2004 the group Tangle Eye released a project called “Alan Lomax’s Southern Journey Remixed”, taking many of Lomax’s recordings and adding modern sound-beds. One of the songs they remixed was the 1959 recording of Ed Young. It features Henry Butler on keyboards and Tony Trischka on banjo.

Here are the complete versions of “John Henry” tracked through time:

Memphis Slim & Willie Dixon “John Henry”  1960

Ed Lewis “John Henry”  1959

Tangle Eye “John Henry’s Blues” 2004

John has worked as a professional bassist for 20 years, including a 15 year stint as Musical Director of the Mountain Stage radio program. John has been at KNKX since 1999 where he hosts “All Blues”, is producer of the BirdNote radio program, and co-hosts “Record Bin Roulette”. John is also the recording engineer for KNKX “In-Studio Performances”. Not surprisingly, John's main musical interests are jazz and blues, and he is still performing around Seattle.