With origins dating back to the Reconstruction era, the epic tale of John Henry has been told countless times. In its many forms, the legend tells of a large black man working on the railroad who goes toe-to-toe with a machine to determine who could hammer the most steel into solid rock. Henry wins the battle, but loses his life in the process.
Many singers have taken on this struggle between man and machine, with versions crossing over boundaries of race, genre, language and recording technology. “‘John Henry’ has become an American song,” historian Scott Reynolds Nelson wrote in his book Ain’t Nothing But A Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry. “And every group that sings it leaves traces in the lines and the verses they add.”
Our Native Daughters is a bluegrass/Americana group consisting of four women of color: Rhiannon Giddens, Allison Russell, Leyla McCalla and Amythyst Kiah. Together, they seek to rekindle the long-neglected African-American bluegrass and folk traditions, one pick and one strum at a time. “There was such hostility to the idea of a banjo being a black instrument,” Giddens told Smithsonian magazine. “It was co-opted by this white supremacist notion that old-time music was the inheritance of white America.”
On their album, aptly titled Songs of Our Native Daughters, the quartet recasts the John Henry legend from the perspective of his wife Polly Ann. Henry’s spouse has been mentioned in different renditions through the years, but the group decided it was time she got top billing. “That story has always been inherently there,” Russell told Rolling Stone. “It just hasn’t been excavated and highlighted.”
“Polly Ann’s Hammer” is a bluegrass anthem through and through. It opens with the fiddle announcing the song’s familiar melody. The group then lays down an acoustic groove meant to resemble a train rolling down the tracks. The lyrics tout Polly Ann’s strength, which rivals that of her husband. “When John was sick/Polly drove steel/Like a man, Lord, like a man.” As the tale concludes, Polly Ann urges her children to move on following their father’s death. “This is the hammer that killed your daddy/Throw it down and we’ll be free.” With a spirited retelling such as this, one hopes that Polly Ann’s legend will earn a place in history, too.
Click here to listen to more Rhiannon Giddens covers