John Henry

According to legend, the African American folk hero John Henry was one of the strongest and fastest steel-driving men to work on the railroads in the post-Civil War era. The steel-driver’s work involved hammering a steel drill into rock. Explosives were placed in the crevice in order to blast away the rock to construct railroad tunnels. In the late nineteenth century, manual labor was replaced by the steam-powered hammer. John Henry entered into an heroic contest with the machine and won, but he hammered so hard that his heart gave out.

John Henry told his captain
“A man ain’t nothing but a man
But before I let your steam drill beat me down
I’d die with a hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord
I’d die with a hammer in my hand.”

The Memphis blues guitarist “Furry” Lewis (1893-1981) recorded John Henry in 1960:

Aaron Copland’s 1940 orchestral setting opens with the quiet, heroic dignity of the individual laborer and ends amid sweat, exhaustion, and the clank of steel:

Labor Day Bonus: Listen to Tennessee Ernie Ford’s 16 Tons

Recordings

Photograph: The historical marker at the entrance of Big Bend Tunnel near Talcott, West Virginia

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

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