An in-depth examination of the music of the 78 era.
Thursday, September 2, 2010
"John Henry Was A Little Boy" - J.E. Mainer's Mountaineers
Set Four: The "Lost" Volume; Disc One; Track Six: "John Henry Was A Little Boy" performed by J.E. Mainer's Mountaineers. Recorded in Charlotte, North Carolina on June 15, 1936. Original issue Bluebird 6629.
Joseph Emmett Mainer was born near Weaverville, North Carolina on July 20, 1898. His younger brother, Wade Mainer, was born on April 21, 1907.
The Mainer brothers came from a musical family and both learned music at an early age. J.E. Mainer learned banjo and fiddle, while Wade concentrated on the banjo. The Mainer Brothers played local dances. Both of them relocated to Concord, North Carolina during the early 1920s where they worked in textile mills. The brothers continued to play locally, their reputations steadily growing. In 1933, J.E. secured a gig playing on radio station WBT in Charlotte, North Carolina, performing on a show sponsored by Crazy Water Crystals. J.E. dubbed his band "J.E. Mainer and his Crazy Mountaineers." In 1934, Wade joined the band on banjo. The group was filled out by guitarist Zeke Morris and "Daddy" John Love. They made their recording debut for Bluebird records in 1935. In 1936, Wade and Zeke Morris temporarily left the group to perform as a duo, but returned in time for the recording session that yielded this version of "John Henry Was A Little Boy" under the name J.E. Mainer's Mountaineers.
In 1937, Wade left the Mountaineers to form his own group, the Sons of the Mountaineers. J.E. kept his group going with various changes in personnel until the start of World War II, when the band broke up. J.E. performed and recorded during the post-war era with his sons, Glenn and Curly. He died on June 12, 1971.
Wade Mainer disbanded the Sons of the Mountaineers during World War II, reforming the group for a 1942 performance at the White House for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. After the war, Mainer continued to perform until his renewed commitment to Christianity led to his retirement from music in 1953.
Mainer relocated to Flint, Michigan where he worked in a General Motors plant. Although he had renounced the music business and quit playing the banjo, Mainer continued to sing gospel music at church and at revival meetings. During the 1960s, Mainer took up the banjo again to record religious music and to tour with his wife, who joined him on stage.
In 1987, Wade Mainer was honored by President Ronald Reagan who bestowed a National Heritage Fellowship upon him. Mainer was honored again in 1996 when he received the Michigan Heritage Award and the Michigan Country Music Association and Services' Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1998, Mainer and his wife were inducted into the Michigan Country Music Hall of Fame. That same year, Mainer was honored with North Carolina’s Surry Arts Council Lifetime Achievement Award.
Mainer still lives in Flint, Michigan. He celebrated his 100th birthday on April 27, 2007 and performed at a concert given in honor of his 101st birthday in 2008. Mainer is the only artist featured on the Anthology who is still alive at the time of this writing.
"John Henry Was A Little Boy" is a variation of the John Henry Ballad. Smith included the Williamson Brothers and Curry's version of "Gonna Die With My Hammer In My Hand" on the second disc of the "Ballad" set. For more information on the historical John Henry and on the John Henry ballad in general, see that earlier entry.
John Henry was a little boy. Lord, he sat on his papa's knee. Lord, he picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel, Said, "This hammer be the death of me. This hammer be the death of me."
John Henry told his captain, Says, "I am a Tennessee man. But before I let that steam drill beat me down, Lord, I'll die with my hammer in my hand. I'll die with my hammer in my hand."
John Henry told his shaker, Says, "Shaker, you'd better pray. Lord, if I miss this six foot steel, Tomorrow be your buryin' day. (Be careful.) Tomorrow be your buryin' day."
John Henry walked to the tunnel, With his captain by his side. The rock was so tall, John Henry so small, Lord, he laid down his hammer and cried. He laid down his hammer and he cried.
John Henry had a lovely little woman. Name was Polly Ann. John Henry got sick and he had to go home. Lord, Polly drove his steel like a man. Polly drove his steel like a man.
Some woman, boy...
J.E. Mainer's Mountaineers, on this recording, consisted of J.E. Mainer on fiddle, Wade Mainer on lead vocal and banjo, Zeke Morris and Beachum Blackweller on guitars and vocals.
It is most interesting to compare the Mainer Brothers' version of this song with the earlier recording by the Williamson Brothers. Both recordings are wild, performed at breakneck speed. Both recordings feature fiddle and two guitars (although the Mainer Brothers' version also features the banjo). Many of the same lyrics crop up in both recordings (although there are some variations. In the Williamson Brothers' version, John Henry's wife is named "Sally Ann." In the version by the Mainer Brothers, her name is "Polly Ann." Such variations between versions is to be expected, and is indeed an integral part of the Folk Process). While both versions purport to be ballads, neither version actually gets around to describing the race between John Henry and the Steam Drill (although the Mainers get a little closer,) and while both version have John Henry declaring that his hammer "will be the death of" him, and that he will "die with [his] hammer in [his] hands," neither version actually depicts his death.
The main differences between the two recordings (made roughly ten years apart) is stylistic. The Williamson Brothers' version points to the past; to traditional folkways. The Mainer Brothers' version points to the future. Both Mainer brothers, but especially Wade, are viewed as a bridge between the "Old Time" styles of the past, and the Bluegrass style that was to come.
"John Henry Was A Little Boy" is the third song in a row recorded in Charlotte, North Carolina, and was actually recorded the day before the Blue Sky Boys recorded their version of "Down On The Banks of the Ohio."
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Here's a kick-ass blues version of John Henry's story by Mississippi Fred McDowell. Lordy!