January 22

“John Hardy”: An American Folk Song and A Legend

“John Hardy” is a popular traditional American folk song.

This track is about the life of a railroad worker living in McDowell County, West Virginia in the spring of 1893.

Legend has it that John Hardy was a West Virginia outlaw. In Carters’ reference to the Keystone Bridge, they were talking about the town in McDowell County, West Virginia. This town was not far from where Hardy worked. People believed that John Hardy got into a drunken dispute during a craps game (a gambling game) held near Keystone. Consequently, Hardy killed a man named Thomas Drews. Hardy’s verdict was guilty of murder in the first degree. As his sentence, he was hanged on January 19, 1894, where 3,000 people supposedly watched. Apart from those beliefs, he made peace with the Lord the morning before his death by being baptized in a river.

From the 1920s up until today, numerous artists have covered “John Hardy”. Here is a cover of the song performed by Bluegrass All-Star: Tony Rice, Alison Krauss, David Grisman, J.D. Crowe, and Mark Schatz. The event was at the Rounder Record’s 20th Anniversary.

“John Hardy” and Its First Covers

In 1924, Eva Davis made the earliest known recordings for Columbia. After a year, Ernest Stoneman had his own version for Okeh. Lastly, in 1927, Buell Kazee recorded the same song. Just like many other traditional folk songs, lyrics change from version to version. Early folk historians confused the ballads of John Hardy and John Henry. This has led to a mixing of stories related to Hardy and Henry. In fact, the historical John Henry was a steel driver, not a railroad worker.

An authentic folk ballad which Maybelle had known all of her life was John Hardy was a Desperate Little Man. Though early folk collectors sometimes confused John Hardy with John Henry, they were totally two different men, with two different legends.

During the early days of the century, dozens of versions of the Hardy ballad circulated. However, after the Carter recording, everyone from Johnny Cash to Bob Dylan used this version.


bluegrass all star, John Hardy

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