This song was recorded by Herbert Halpert in Hillsville, VA. The originial singer was one of the Martin family from Hillsville. It is an interesting ballad-like, or work-song version of John Henry which Mrs. Martin said was sung by black and white men alike who were working on the railroad. I would be willing to bet there were several nationalities working together also, like Irish American and possibly Asian American workers.
The lyrics are an interesting reflection on working life and the struggle to survive. They don't make a direct reference to folk legend John Henry in Mrs. Martin's version, but the melody she sings is the same as one recorded elsewhere by Alan Lomax that does contain some of the more familiar John Henry lyrics. When I sing this in concert I add the John Henry part and I add a line I learned from Scott Ainslie's class on Mississippi John Hurt. "This hammer....won't kill me." Scott explained to us that it means a lot to hear someone say that the hammer killed John Henry but "it won't kill me". Again, this to me is about the struggle to survive in life.
When I recorded this I was a very young singer and very new to the unaccompanied singing. I tried to be faithful to the melody and simple ornamentation of Mrs. Martin. I really love the sound of the fiddle on this as well.
When you hear the whipporwhills a-hollering,
It's corn planting time, boys, corn planting time.
There's not a hammer in the Allegheny Mountains
That rings like mine, babe, that rings like mine.
When you hear my bulldog barking, there's somebody around, woman,
When you hear my forty-four a-roaring,
There's another man dead, another man dead.
from Chasing the Ghost
track released July 24, 2016
Lydia Sylvia Martin, vocals
Dirk Powell, fiddle