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Recorded by Bob Dylan (with the Grateful Dead) at The Club Front, San Rafael, CA, May 1987.

John Hardy was an actual person, a black man, working in the tunnels of West Virginia (just like "John Henry"). In fact, as Alan Lomax remarks, "the two songs ["John Henry" & "John Hardy"] have sometimes been combined by folk singers, and the two characters confused by ballad collectors....").

One payday, in a crap game at Shawnee Coal Company's camp (in what is today Eckman, WV), John Hardy killed a fellow worker. Alan Lomax provides the following additional info:

His white captors protected him from a lynch mob that came to take him out of jail and hang him. When the lynch fever subsided, Hardy was tried during the July term of the McDowell County Criminal Court, found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. While awaiting execution in jail, he is said to have composed this ballad, which he later sang on the scaffold. He also confessed his sins to a minister, became very religious, and advised all young men, as he stood beneath the gallows, to shun liquor, gambling and bad company. The order for his execution shows that he was hanged near the courthouse in McDowell County, January 19, 1894. His ballad appears to have been based upon certain formulae stanzas from the Anglo-Saxon ballad stock....

Alan Lomax, The Folk Songs of North America, Garden City, 1960, p. 264; lyrics on pp. 271-273.

The lyrics Patricia Jungwirth provided for the Dylan/Grateful Dead rehearsals version are rather close to those of The Original Carter Family's version (original issue Victor 40190A, recorded at RCA Studios, Camden, NJ, on May 10, 1928) and hint at Dylan's likely source (which is also the most likely source/inspiration of many other traditional songs in his repertoire or even Dylan originals like "Hard Times In New York Town."...): Harry Smith's 6-LP anthology "American Folk Music" (Folkways FA 2951-2953), where the Carter Family's version was reissued in 1952 as track 17.

Harry Smith (who erroneously attributes "John Hardy" to a 1930 Carter Family recording session) adds the following info:

No absolutely authentic information is available on John Hardy except the order for execution on file in the court house at Welch, McDowell County,
"State of West Virginia vs. John Hardy. Felony. This day came again the State by her attorney and the prisoner who stands convicted of murder in the first degree.... The prisoner saying nothing why such sentence should be passed.... It is therefore considered by the court that the prisoner, John Hardy, is guilty... and that the said John Hardy be hanged by the neck until dead... on Friday the 19th day of January 1894."
Witness of the trial states that Hardy worked for the Shawnee Coal Company and one pay day night he killed a man in a crap game over 25 cents.

Harry Smith, liner notes, p. 5.


John Hardy was a brave little man,
He carried two guns ev'ry day.
Killed him a man in the West Virginia land,
Oughta seen poor Johnny gettin' away, Lord, Lord,
Oughta seen poor Johnny gettin' away.

John Hardy was standin' at the barroom door,
He didn't have a hand in the game,
Up stepped his woman and threw down fifty cents,
Says, "Deal my man in the game, Lord, Lord...."

John Hardy lost that fifty cents,
It was all he had in the game,
He drew the forty-four that he carried by his side
Blowed out that poor Negro's brains, Lord, Lord....

John Hardy had ten miles to go,
And half of that he run,
He run till he come to the broad river bank,
He fell to his breast and he swum, Lord, Lord....

He swum till he came to his mother's house,
"My boy, what have you done?"
"I've killed a man in the West Virginia Land,
And I know that I have to be hung, Lord, Lord...."

He asked his mother for a fifty-cent piece,
"My son, I have no change."
"Then hand me down my old forty-four
And I'll blow out my agurvatin' [sic] brains, Lord, Lord...."

John Hardy was lyin' on the broad river bank,
As drunk as a man could be;
Up stepped the police and took him by the hand,
Sayin' "Johnny, come and go with me, Lord, Lord...."

John Hardy had a pretty little girl,
The dress she wore was blue.
She come a-skippin' through the old jail hall
Sayin', "Poppy, I'll be true to you, Lord, Lord...."

John Hardy had another little girl,
The dress that she wore was red,
She came a-skippin' through the old jail hall
Sayin' "Poppy, I'd rather be dead, Lord, Lord...."

They took John Hardy to the hangin' ground,
They hung him there to die.
The very last words that poor boy said,
"My forty gun never told a lie, Lord, Lord...."

LYRICS AS RECORDED BY THE ORIGINAL CARTER FAMILY (Sara Carter, vocals/autoharp; Maybelle Carter, guitar), CAMDEN, NJ, May 10, 1928,
transcribed by Manfred Helfert.

*** From: skulick@linc.cis.upenn.edu (Seth Kulick)***
Date: Apr 4, 1997 01:42:53 GMT

The liner notes to the Carter Family CD "Anchored in Love", from the Complete Victor Recordings series, this one being for the years 1927-8, has the following comments on the song, with a very curious reference to Dylan:
A genuine folk ballad which Maybelle had known all of her life was "John Hardy was a Desperate Little Man." Though early folk collectors sometimes confused John Hardy with John Henry, they were in fact two different men, with two different legends. John Hardy was a West Virginia outlaw who was hanged in 1894; the Carters' reference to the "Keystone Bridge" refers to the town in McDowell County, West Virginia, not far from where Hardy worked and, supposedly, killed a man over a 25-cent gambling debt. During the early days of the centry, dozens of versions of the Hardy ballad circulated, but after the Carter recording, everyone from Johnny Cash to Bob Dylan used this version...
(notes by Charles Wolfe, 1993)
Huh? What Dylan version? Could this guy be referring to the Dylan/Dead version? Weird...

John Hardy, he was a desp'rate little man,
He carried two guns ev'ry day.
He shot a man on the West Virginia line,
An' you ought seen John Hardy getting away.

John Hardy, he got to the Keystone Bridge,
He thought that he would be free.
And up stepped a man and took him by his arm,
Says, "Johnny, walk along with me."

He sent for his poppy and his mommy, too,
To come and go his bail.
But money won't go a murdering case;
They locked John Hardy back in jail.

John Hardy, he had a pretty little girl,
That dress that she wore was blue
As she came skipping through the old jail hall,
Saying, "Poppy, I've been true to you."

John Hardy, he had another little girl,
That dress that she wore was red.
She followed John Hardy to his hanging ground,
Saying, "Poppy, I would rather be dead."

I been to the East and I been to the West,
I been this wide world around.
I been to the river and I been baptized,
And now I'm on my hanging ground.

John Hardy walked out on his scaffold high,
With his loving little wife by his side.
And the last words she heard poor John-O say,
"I'll meet you in that sweet bye-and-bye."

transcribed by Patricia Jungwirth, with corrections (hopefully...) by Manfred Helfert:

John Hardy was a desperate little man,
Carried two guns every day;
Killed him a man on the West Virginia line,
Oughta see John Hardy gettin' away,
Oughta seen John Hardy gettin' away.

John Hardy walked that Keystone Bridge,
He thought he was free.
Up steps a sheriff and he takes him by the hand,
Saying, "Johnny, you can come along with me, poor boy,
Johnny, you can come along with me."

He sent for his Mama and his Papa, too,
Come and go his bail.
But there were no bail for a murder charge,
So they throw John Hardy back in jail,
Threw John Hardy back in jail.

John Hardy had a pretty little girl,
The dress she wore was blue.
The very last thing that she said to him,
Said, "Johnny I been true to you Johnny, I been true to you."

I've been to the East and I been through the West,
I've been this wide world 'round.
I've been to the river and I've been baptized,
Now I'm on my hanging ground,
Now I'm on my hanging ground.

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