Back to John Hardy
JOHN HARDY. Old-Time, Song Tune and Breakdown. A Major. AEae tuning (fiddle). "John Hardy" is the name of both a song and instrumental tune with numerous variants stylistically, musically, and lyrically. Mike Yates (2002) says that the historical John Hardy, similar to the legendary and better-known John Henry, was an African-American who drove steel for the Shawnee Coal Company in West Virginia. He was hanged for murder in 1894 in McDowell County, West Virginia, soon after which a song gained increasingly popular circulation among both black and white Appalachian singers.
An eyewitness, one James Knox Smith, an African-American lawyer of Keystone, McDowell County, was present at John Hardy's trial and execution. Hardy was "black as a crow, over six feet tall, weighed about two-hundred pounds, and had unusually long arms. He came originally from southeastern Virginia, and had no family. He had formerly been a steel driver and was about forty years old or more." Smith gave this account in 1918:
Hardy worked for the Shawnee Coal company, and one pay-day night he killed a man in a crap game over a dispute of 25 cents. Before the game began, he lay his pistol on the table saying to it 'Now I want you to lay here; and the first nigger that steals money from me, I mean to kill him.' About midnight he began to lose, and claimed that one of the negros had taken 25 cents of his money. The man denied the charge, but gave him the amount; whereupon he said 'Don't you know that I won't lie to my gun?' Thereupon he seized his pistol and shot the man dead.
Hardy was defended by Judge H.H. Christian, who visited him in jail before the execution and, in the company of a white Baptist minister, brought about a last minute religious conversion. The men gave Hardy a new suit and had him taken to the nearby Tug River where he was baptized. Just prior to the carrying out of his sentence, it was reported, Hardy begged the sheriff's pardon and advised young men to avoid drinking and gambling.
Alan Lomax, in Folk Songs of North America (1960), records:
His white captors protected him from a lynch mob that came to take him out of jail and hang him. When the lynch fever subsided, Hardy was tried during the July term of the McDowell County Criminal Court, found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. While awaiting execution in jail, he is said to have composed this ballad, which he later sang on the scaffold. He also confessed his sins to a minister, became very religious, and advised all young men, as he stood beneath the gallows, to shun liquor, gambling and bad company. The order for his execution shows that he was hanged near the courthouse in McDowell County, January 19, 1894. His ballad appears to have been based upon certain formulae stanzas from the Anglo-Saxon ballad stock....
Source for notated version:
Recorded sources: Columbia 167-D (78 RPM), 1924, Samantha Bumgarner and Eva Davis (Asheville, N.C.). Folk Legacy FSA-17, Hobart Smith - "America's Greatest Folk Instrumentalist" (appears as last tune of "Banjo Group 2). Library of Congress (2742-A-2), 1939, H.L. Maxey (Franklin County, Va.). Marimac 9009, John Cohen, Bill Christophersen, Pat Conte - "Old Time Friends" (1987). Musical Traditions, MTCD 321-2, Ted Boyd/Dan Tate (two versions) - "Far on the Mountain, vols. 1&2" (2002). Rounder CD 0394, Buell Kazee. Smithsonian Folkways SF CD 4018, Doc Boggs. Smithsonian Folkways SF CD 40079, Dink Roberts. Yodel-Ay-Hee 05, The Wildcats - "On Our Knees" (1992).
See also listing at:
Jane Keefer's Folk Music Index: An Index to Recorded Sources