Cephas & Wiggins play “John Henry”

I’m feeling distinctly ambivalent about yesterday’s election results; as I sort this out, a little classic American music may be appropriate.

According to Bruce Bastin’s Red River Blues: The Blues Tradition in the Southwest, the American traditional “John Henry” was usually among the very first songs that Piedmont blues musicians would master. “Many bluesmen in the Piedmont recall this as the first song they ever learned,” Bastin wrote. “In many cases ‘John Henry’ was the only tune these inexperienced youngsters could play with any ease,” noting that many of these young musicians built their own crude, homemade versions of guitars.

Etta Baker recorded this version of “John Henry” in the early 1960s, and below is a rendition by John Cephas (guitar) and Phil Wiggins (harmonica). It’s ambivalent, too, and perhaps eerily appropriate.

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