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‘‘John Hardy’’


‘‘John Hardy’’ is an anonymous murder ballad recounting actual events from the life of an African-American railroad worker who killed a man over money in a drunken gambling dispute at Shawnee Coal Camp (later called Eckman) near Keystone. Hardy was found guilty by a jury, sentenced, and hanged from a wooden gallows erected for the occasion in Welch on January 19, 1894. Earlier that day, Hardy was baptized and, before his execution, made a brief speech expressing sorrow for his misdeed and hope for an afterlife.

The ballad probably originated in McDowell County but moved quickly beyond the state’s borders. Less than two decades after the hanging, published variants appeared in North Carolina and Kentucky as well as in West Virginia. As the song was transmitted, text changes occurred, and the stories of Hardy and John Henry, the legendary African-American railroad worker who battled a steam drill in Summers County, became intermingled. A letter from former Governor William MacCorkle to state archivist Henry S. Green in 1916 furthered the confusion. In his 1925 Folk-Songs of the South, West Virginia University professor John Harrington Cox documented nine versions of ‘‘John Hardy’’ where Henry and Hardy are assumed to be the same individual. Louis Watson Chappell’s 1932 John Henry: A Folk-Lore Study challenged the earlier documents and made clear distinctions between Henry, the heroic steel driving man, and Hardy, the outlaw and murderer.

‘‘John Hardy’’ has been performed in folk, blues, country, bluegrass, jazz, and rock versions and recorded by Pete Seeger, the Carter Family, Earl Scruggs, Huddy Ledbetter (Leadbelly), and the Kingston Trio. Tunes have been notated in the collections of John and Alan Lomax, Cecil Sharp, Marie Boette, and Pat Gainer.

Written by H. G. Young III


  1. Chappell, Louis W. John Henry: A Folk-Lore Study. Jena, Germany: Frommannsche Verlag, W. Biederman, 1933, Reprint, Kennikat Press, 1968.

  2. Cox, John Harrington. Folk-Songs of the South. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1925.

  3. Comstock, Jim, ed. West Virginia Heritage Encyclopedia no.23, vol.1. Richwood: Jim Comstock, 1974.

  4. Ramella, Richard. John Hardy: The Man and the Song. Goldenseal, (Spring 1992).