"Take This Hammer" (Roud 4299, AFS 745B1) is a prison, logging, and railroad work song, which has the same Roud number as another song, "Nine Pound Hammer", with which it shares verses. "Swannanoa Tunnel" and "Ashville Junction" are similar. Together, this group of songs are referred to as "hammer songs" or "roll songs" (after a group of wheelbarrow-hauling songs with much the same structure, though not mentioning hammers).Numerous bluegrass bands and singers like Scott McGill and Mississippi John Hurt also recorded commercial versions of this song, nearly all of them containing verses about the legendary spike driver, John Henry; and even when they do not, writes folklorist Kip Lornell, "one feels his strong and valorous presence in the song".
For almost a hundred years after the abolition of slavery, convicts, mostly African American, were leased to work as forced labor in the mines, railroad camps, brickyards, turpentine farms, and then on road gangs of the American South. Forced labor on chain gangs, levees, and huge, plantation-like prison farms continued well into the twentieth century. It was not unusual for work songs like "Take this Hammer" and its "floating verses" to drift between occupations along with the itinerant laborers who sang them. The elements of both the ballad of "John Henry" and the "Take This Hammer" complex appear to date from the late nineteenth century, probably the 1870s.
A manuscript variant of "Take This Hammer" from 1915 was published by the folklorist and English professor Newman Ivey White:
This old hammer killed John Henry,But it can't kill me.Take this hammer, take it to the Captain,Tell him I'm gone, babe, tell him I'm gone.
In the 1920s, folklorists, notably Dorothy Scarborough (1925) and Guy Johnson and Howard W. Odum (1926), also collected transcribed versions. Scarborough's short text, published in her book, On The Trail of Negro Folk-Songs (1925), is the first version published under the title "Nine-Pound Hammer", before the earliest commercial recording of that name. This was the white "hillbilly" (ascountry music was then called) 78 single by Al Hopkins and His Buckle Busters. Hopkins's "Nine Pound Hammer" added the chorus "Roll on buddy / Don't you roll so slow. / How can I roll / When the wheels won't go?" This was the first of many hillbilly recordings of the song, including, notably (The Monroe Brothers' "Nine Pound Hammer Is Too Heavy", in 1936.) Carl Sandburg's popular anthology, The American Songbag (1927) contains the song "My Old Hammah" ("Shine like silver"). In 1928, before the Depression put an end to his recording career, African-American blues singer Mississippi John Hurt issued a commercial single, "Spike Driver Blues" on Okeh records. This song, with intricate finger-picked guitar accompaniment, combines some elements of the "John Henry" ballad. It was later included in Harry Smith's celebrated 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music LP set, leading to the rediscovery of the performer. Norm Cohen terms "Spike Driver Blues" "a lyrical variant of "Nine-Pound Hammer" and "more an entertainment piece than an actual work song, but their close kinship is unmistakable".
In 1933 John A. Lomax and his 18-year-old son Alan, recording for the Library of Congress with the aid of an aluminum flat-disc-cutting recording machine, recorded Allen Prothro, a prisoner inChattanooga, Tennessee, singing "Jumpin' Judy", with a theme and verses in common with "Take This Hammer", including reference to the "captain" (i.e., white prison guard), with his 44 in his right hand, and the fantasy of escape. They printed a longer version of the text in their anthology American Ballads and Folk Songs (1934), stipulating that it be performed "rather slow, with pathos."
John A. Lomax and his colleague Harold Spivacke made another Library of Congress audio field recording on June 14, 1936, of "Take This Hammer", performed by Jimmie Strothers, a blind prisoner at the State Farm (Virginia State Penitentiary), at Lynn, Virginia, performing with finger-picked banjo accompaniment.
In 1942, Alan Lomax, recorded another version of the same song as sung by Sid Hemphill. This version was titled "John Henry" and accompanied by violin, played by Hemphill, and a drum, played by a friend of Hemphill, Will Head.
In December 1947, Alan Lomax, recorded it again on (then newly invented) reel-to-reel tape at Lambert Camp, Parchman Farm (Mississippi State Penitentiary), performed by three prisoners with axes: "Bull" Hollie Dew, "Foots" Milton Smith, and "Dobie Red" Tim Taylor.
In 1959, Alan Lomax and English singer Shirley Collins revisited Parchman Farm in Mississippi, bringing along with them reel-to-reel stereo equipment. Among other songs, they re-recorded "Take This Hammer", performed by L. C. Hoskins and an unidentified group of prisoners cutting wood with axes As late as 1965, folklorist Bruce Jackson, while doing field work in the Texas prison system, collected it from prisoners who sang it (also while cutting lumber), as "This Old Hammer Killed John Henry".
"Take This Hammer" was issued as on commercial 78-rpm single by Lead Belly in 1940 and again in 1942. In his performance on this record, Lead Belly added a "haah" at the end of each line,explaining in his spoken introduction, "Every time the men say 'haah', the hammer falls. The hammer rings, and we swing, and we sing." In saying "we", Lead Belly was undoubtedly referring to his many years an inmate of the notorious prison farm in Angola, Louisiana. Lead Belly's powerful version subsequently became a staple of the urban folk revival.
Meanwhile, the song continued to be popular among country singers. Merle Travis's 1946 recomposition, "Nine Pound Hammer is Too Heavy", an adaptation of the song to coal mining, had a great impact on folk and country singers.
An award-winning documentary film by Bob Gordon about the building of dry stack stone walls entitled, Take This Hammer (released in September 2008), has a soundtrack featuring the traditional "Nine Pound Hammer" song, which is in the public domain.