Passed down from the late 1800s, the folk ballad “John Henry” tells the story of a Black steel driver who dies in an effort to best a steam drill in laying down steel for the construction of a railroad. Henry is thought to have been a real person, whose proof of existence has been pieced together by a combination of oral history and railroad company records. As the tale goes, Henry’s claim to heroism was his ultimate victory over the steam drill.
Not only has “John Henry” been covered by countless artists, including Johnny Cash, Big Bill Broonzy, Bruce Springsteen, Harry Belafonte, and Gillian Welch, its story has been referenced throughout film and television since the early 20th century, most notably in the stop-motion animation film John Henry and the Inky-Poo (1946).
This arrangement features just four chords: G5, D/F#, Em, and C. The G5 is played similarly to a regular open G chord, but includes a D on the third fret of the second string, excluding the major third, B. For the D/F#, you can play the F# with your second finger (as singer-songwriter Maurice Tani does in the accompanying video), your first finger, or you can wrap your thumb around the neck to reach it.
Tani plays the piece with a basic Travis-picking pattern. (For a primer on this approach, see the Basics lesson in the December 2017 issue.) The lower voice, picked by the thumb on the bottom string, maintains a steady quarter-note pulse; the higher voice, played on the top three strings, complements the structure set by the thumb. If Travis picking is new to you, try playing it very slowly at first, making note of where the high voice matches the beat of the lower one and when it falls in between. Gradually pick up the tempo until you can play it up to speed comfortably for the best performance of this homage to a folk hero.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.