"They Killed John Henry" as written by and Justin Townes Earle....
Well, when John Henry died he lay lookin' at the sun
He said Lord, take me now my work is done, Lord, Lord
Lord take me now my work is done

Yeah, but when they laid him out in that box of pine, boy
They laid that hammer by his side, Lord, Lord
Laid that hammer by his side

Yeah, and Joe Hill he worked any job he could find, boy
He'd rake your leaves and pick your vine, Lord, Lord
Rake your leaves and pick your vine

Yeah, and they killed Joe Hill, put a bullet to his name
But that bullet made a martyr of the same, Lord, Lord
Bullet made a martyr of the same

Yeah, and my grand daddy worked his whole damn life
Well, he never saved a nickel though he tried, Lord, Lord
Never saved a nickel though he tried

And he died in Tennessee but he couldn't find no rest
With that long road to Texas lyin' ahead, Lord Lord
Long road to Texas lyin' ahead

Yes sir, I ain't no great man and Lord I expect to see
A long life, a workin' and you're dead, Lord, Lord
A long life, a workin' and you're dead

They killed John Henry, they killed John Henry
They killed John Henry but they won't kill me
Lord, they killed John Henry, they killed John Henry
They killed John Henry but they won't kill me


Lyrics submitted by melancholyjen

"They Killed John Henry" as written by Justin Townes Earle

Lyrics © BMG RIGHTS MANAGEMENT US, LLC

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They Killed John Henry song meanings
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  • +1
    General CommentIt seems likely that this song is about the struggle of the American laborer and the working class in industrialized society.

    "Well, when John Henry died, he lay lookin' at the sun
    He said 'Lord, take me now my work is done', Lord, Lord
    'Lord, take me now my work is done'"

    John Henry is a folk hero who is famous for his race against a steam-powered hammer, in which he raced a machine with his hammer to see who could dig a tunnel faster. While he won the race, he died of exhaustion immediately after. John Henry is often used as a symbol for the role of humans in industrialized/mechanized society. He is likely used here to symbolize the degraded worth of a human worker in a machine-based society.

    "Yeah, and Joe Hill, he'd work any job he could find, boy
    He'd rake your leaves and pick your vine, Lord, Lord
    Rake your leaves and pick your vine
    Yeah and they killed Joe Hill, put a bullet to his name
    But that bullet made a martyr of the slain, Lord, Lord
    Bullet made a martyr of the slain"

    Joe Hill was a labor and workers' rights activist who was falsely executed for murder. His wrongful execution and the things he stood for made him a martyr and folk hero among American workers.

    "Yeah, and my grandaddy worked his whole damn life
    Well, he never saved a nickel though he tried, Lord, Lord
    Never saved a nickel though he tried
    And he died in Tennessee but he couldn't find no rest"

    Even though the narrator's grandaddy worked his tail off, he was never able to achieve a comfortable and decent life. His grandaddy was a hard worker, but his struggle was so tough that even after he died he "couldn't find no rest." This is likely also a commentary on laborers and the working class being treated like dirt in an industrialized society controlled by the rich.

    "Yessir, I ain't no great man, and Lord I expect
    To see a long life workin' in your debt, Lord, Lord
    A long life workin' in your debt"

    The narrator is not a "great man," or rich person, so he expects to have a tough life as a worker in capitalist/industrialist society.

    "They killed John Henry, they killed John Henry
    They killed John Henry, but they won't kill me, Lord"

    The song ends with the narrator showing some resolve -- as a member of the working class -- to not be treated with the same lack of decency that normally comes from the rich/elite of industrial society. John Henry was basically worked to death trying to prove his worth, and the narrator defiantly proclaims, "they killed John Henry, but they won't kill me."










    mauerburnson September 10, 2011   Link
  • -1
    General CommentA large art of this song seems to be that people keep "living" after their "deaths."

    "Yeah, but when they laid him out in that box of pine, boy
    They laid that hammer by his side, Lord, Lord
    Laid that hammer by his side"

    This suggests that he would be using his hammer well into the afterlife (slightly reminiscent of ancient Egyptian burial rights for Pharaohs), or that he will be swinging his hammer forever in songs.

    "Yeah and they killed Joe Hill, put a bullet to his name
    But that bullet made a martyr of the slain, Lord, Lord
    Bullet made a martyr of the slain"

    Joel Emmanuel Hagglund, aka Joseph Hillstrom, aka Joe Hill (namesake of Joseph Hillstrom "Joe Hill" King), was a labor activist falsely executed for murder (most ironic) in 1915, whose name lives on as a folk hero in songs, poems, and at least one movie.

    "And he died in Tennessee but he couldn't find no rest
    With that long road to Texas lie ahead, Lord, Lord
    That long road to Texas lie ahead"

    Even though his grandaddy died, he's not resting but still trying to get to Texas

    "Yessir, I ain't no great man, and Lord I expect
    To see a long life workin' in your debt, Lord, Lord
    A long life workin' in your debt"

    He's admitting he's not perfect and that when he's dead, God's going to keep him in Purgatory for quite a long time

    All in all, a person never truly dies, they always keep doing something, even if only the collective memory of their lives. John Henry will always be in songs, swinging his hammer to defeat the machine; Joe Hill will always be a martyr, falsely accused of murdering a wealthy storeowner so that somebody else could get away with it; the narrator will always be trying to get to Texas for a better life where he can keep the rewards for his work; te narrator will always be in Purgatory making up for his actions in life

    Again, how has almost NOBODY commented on ANY of Justin's songs? They're brilliant!

    (Feeling, impression: Country/folk version of Dave Matthew's "Gravedigger")
    Castle742on June 28, 2010   Link

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