Song of the Week: “John Henry” by Mississippi Fred McDowell

by Douglas Cowie on 19 January 2018

Each Friday I pick a song–new, old, borrowed, blue–that’s been on my mind and in my ears, and write a short post about it.

This is “John Henry” by Mississippi Fred McDowell:

I have a minor obsession with the song “John Henry,” I think because an animated film of the story of John Henry caught my imagination when I was in grade school. I think I might’ve seen it more than once.  It was almost certainly this version, which it turns out was sung by Roberta Flack, which may go at least part of the way to explaining how or why it grabbed my attention. Anyway, the song features prominently in a screenplay I’m working on at the moment, so it’s been on mind quite a lot lately.  There’s a zillion different versions of it. I’d never seen this video of Mississippi Fred McDowell playing it before. I’ve had too many idle conversations with my friend Tim about different styles of guitar fingerpicking, so I’m interested to see Mississippi Fred using thumb and index finger only here.  What a guitar player.

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