“Take This Hammer”

Author: unknown
Earliest date: "Take This Hammer": 1915 (collected by Newman Ivey White); "Nine Pound Hammer" variant: 1927 (Sandburg; recording, Al Hopkins & his Buckle Busters)
Keywords: prisoner work escape nonballad worksong
Found in: US(SE) Jamaica


The singer tells a (fellow prisoner?) to take his hammer to the captain; the singer is running away. The hammer (which killed John Henry) will never kill him. The versions show considerable variations


The connection between this song and "Swannanoa Tunnel" is very strong; there are so many intermediate versions that we can hardly draw a clear distinction. But the extreme versions are sufficiently different that I have listed them separately. - RBW

Paul Stamler suggests that "Take This Hammer" and "Nine Pound Hammer" can be distinguished by the chorus (found in the latter) "Roll on buddy/Don't you roll so slow/How can I roll/When the wheels won't go."

Paul adds, ""According to the liner notes on LC61, the cited 78s (by Charlie Bowman and Al Hopkins) are the first recorded under the names 'Roll On, Buddy' and 'Nine Pound Hammer,' indicating the variant existed when these records were published. The Aunt Molly Jackson field recording dates from 1939. So I think we've established the variant's presence in tradition as early as the late 1920s. I think it's time to split 'em, with cross-referencing notes."

He's probably right. Sadly, we now have four references I can no longer check. So they remain lumped until I can find a way to get those books back. - RBW

Unfortunately, the liner notes to LC61 misled me. While it's true that the title "Roll On, Buddy" was first used by Charlie Bowman & his Brothers, his recording (placed here in earlier versions of the Index) wasn't this song. Instead, it was the one we have indexed as "Roll On, Buddy (II) [Roll On, Buddy, Roll On]." Sorry.

We can go further: Archie Green interviewed Charlie Bowman of Al Hopkins & his Buckle Busters, who stated that he and Al Hopkins had put together the "Roll On Buddy" variant from traditional fragments during their 1927 recording session, and the song was in fact copyrighted in their name. Bowman stated that he'd learned many of the fragments from African-American railroad workers in 1903-1905. - PJS

Norm Cohen has an extensive discussion, based on Archie Green's examination in _Only a Miner_. They note two basic elements: The "Take this hammer" stanzas, in non-rhyming couplets, and the "roll on buddy" verses, which do rhyme. They therefore suspect that Hopkins was the source of the combination. The problem is simply too great to fully explicate here; I can only recommend the discussions in Green and Cohen. - RBW

I place Robeson's "Water Boy" here for want of a better place. It contains several floating verses from this song (e.g., "There ain't no hammer that's on this mountain/That rings like mine..."). - PJS

Cross references



  1. Cohen-LSRail, pp. 571-582, "Nine Pound Hammer" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. Friedman, p. 383, "John Henry" (6 texts, but the last three belong with this song)
  3. Sandburg, p. 376, "Ever Since Uncle John Henry Been Dead" (1 text, 1 tune, which I believe belongs here although the text is too short to be sure); 457-458, "My Old Hammah" (1 text, 1 tune)
  4. BrownII 280, "John Henry" (2 texts plus 5 fragments, 1 excerpt, and mention of 1 more, but it appears that fragments "B," "D," "E," and "G" go here)
  5. BrownIII 241, "Some of These Days and It Won't Be Long" (1 text plus a fragment; the "A" text shows hints of incorporating another ballad); also 240, "I Been a Miner" (1 4-line fragment, consisting of the stanza "I been a miner most of my life" and the stanza, "Big John Henry (x3) poor boy blind")
  6. Chappell-FSRA 104, "The John Henry Hammer Song" (1 short and 1 very long text, 1 tune; the short text might be anything and the long, though it ends with these verses, includes much floating material about railroad construction)
  7. Scarborough-NegroFS, p. 219, (no title) (1 short texts; neither has the "take this hammer" line, but they fit metrically and mention the hammer that killed John Henry); p. 220, "Work-song" (1 short text, 1 tune, at least related to this); p. 220, "Nine-Pound Hammer" (1 short text); p. 220, "Work-song" (1 short text, with a verse of this song although it also mentions shooting Ida in the leg)
  8. Colcord, p. 186, "Rocks In De Mountens" (1 text, 1 tune)
  9. Lomax-FSUSA 93, "Take This Hammer" (1 text, 1 tune)
  10. Lomax-FSNA 145, "Roll On, Buddy"; 297, "East Colorado Blues" (2 texts, 2 tunes -- both, especially the former, folk processed and expanded and perhaps derived in part from other songs.)
  11. GreenMiner, p. 329-331, "Nine Pound Hammer" (7 texts, 2 tunes)
  12. Asch/Dunson/Raim, p. 100, "Spike Driver Blues" (1 text, 1 tune); p. 112, "Nine Pound Hammer" (1 text, 1 tune)
  13. Cohen/Seeger/Wood, pp. 94-95, "Nine-Pound Hammer" (1 text, 1 tune)
  14. Botkin-AmFolklr, p. 913, "Take This Hammer" (1 text, 1 tune)
  15. Courlander-NFM, pp. 137-138, "(John Henry)" (1 text, with a fragment of the plot of "John Henry" but many lyrics from "Take This Hammer"); pp. 285-286, "John Henry (Version III)" (1 text, 1 tune)
  16. Darling-NAS, pp. 234-235, "Spike Driver Blues" (1 text, filed with three texts of "John Henry"); also pp. 327-328, "John Henry, " "This Old Hammer" (2 texts)
  17. Silber-FSWB, p. 69, "Take This Hammer" (1 text); p. 124, "Nine Pound Hammer" (1 text)
  19. Roud #4299
  20. BI, FR383