Special to the Wheeling Daily Register, Jan. 20, 1894:
WILD E, W. Va., January 19. - John Hardy, for killing Thomas Drews, both colored, was hung at 2:09 p.m. to-day. Three thousand people witnessed his death. His neck was broken and he died in 17 1/2 minutes. He exhibited great nerve, attributed his downfall to whiskey, and said he had made peace with God. His body was cut down at 2:39, placed in a coffin, and given to the proper parties for interment. He was baptised in the river this morning.
So the story begins. Apparently, John Hardy was one of hundreds of workers who went to Southern West Virginia to work in the booming coalfields in the late 19th century. The region, according WVCulture.org, was “not prepared to handle the population explosion and stories of murder, drinking, gambling, and prostitution became legendary.”
There doesn't seem to be any specific source for the writing of the song telling Hardy's story, which was collected by John Lomax, the famous musicologist and folklorist. His son Alan later suggested that Hardy himself wrote it, writing in the notes for the Anthology of American Folk Music that “[Hardy's] white captors protected him from a lynch mob that came to take him out of jail and hang him. When the lynch fever subsided, Hardy was tried during the July term of the McDowell County Criminal Court, found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. While awaiting execution in jail, he is said to have composed this ballad, which he later sang on the scaffold. He also confessed his sins to a minister, became very religious, and advised all young men, as he stood beneath the gallows, to shun liquor, gambling and bad company.” The song has been sung by dozens of interpreters.
In 1959, John Cohen, one of the founders of the New Lost City Ramblers, was traveling in Eastern Kentucky, where he discovered Roscoe Holcomb, then 47 years old. Holcomb had never been a paid performer, but Cohen brought him to New York and to other folk music centers to present his mountain style music. Bob Dylan, among others, heard him and was influenced by him. Here's a video of Holcomb singing "John Hardy," accompanying himself on the guitar.
The Carter Family, active from the late 1920s, was, arguably an anchor for the development of the bluegrass sound that matured when Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. The Carters were first recorded at the famed Bristol Sessions held in Bristol Tennessee/Virginia (the state line runs down the middle of main street) in 1927 by Ralph Peer, working for RCA records. A.P. Carter played guitar and sang bass, while collecting songs for this threesome composed of his wife, Sarah Carter, and his sister-in-law Maybelle. They were active until 1956 as a band, though Mother Maybelle Carter played into the 1970s, when she performed on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's groundbreaking introduction of bluegrass to the rest of the world Will the Circle Be Unbroken.
Here's a recording of the Carter Family singing "John Hardy":
Huddie "Lead Belly" Leadbetter (1888 – 1949), played 12-string guitar on his version of "John Hardy." After a stint in prison, Lead Belly became a singer and songwriter. He was discovered by Lomax, who took him as his driver on a trip north in 1934, to Bryn Mawr College. They continued on to New York, where Lead Belly began to record. He was made famous through his relationship with Pete Seeger, who introduced him at folk festivals and sang many of his songs, including my wife's least favorite, “Good Night, Irene.” Here's Lead Belly's “John Hardy”:
Now, here's Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys playing an instrumental version of the same song in the typical lightning-fast bluegrass style. I don't have a date for this version, so I don't know whether that's Earl Scruggs on the banjo or not, but it's mighty fine:
This next version is also a bluegrass version, but quite a bit different than the way Bill Monroe imagined the song. Performed at Merlefest in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, in 1988, this newgrass version features Tony Rice on guitar and vocal, Sam Bush on mandolin, Mark O'Connor on fiddle, Belà Fleck on banjo, John Cowan on bass, and Jerry Douglas on Dobro. While being true to the tune of the original "John Hardy," it brings all the vitality, virtuosity, and rock and roll inflection that the New Grass Revival and its emulators introduced into bluegrass.
This final version is a more modern Americana version recorded by Meg Baird, Helen Espvall, and Sharron Kraus on their 2006 album, Leaves from Off the Tree. In a sense, it represents a return to the folk sound of earlier versions, but its polish and sensibility is thoroughly modern. This rendition fits perfectly into an Americana classification, with tight harmonies and finger-picked guitar.
Each of these recordings of the great song "John Hardy" represents a different sensibility, an altered view of how the song should be presented, and how it might sound. But can anyone argue that any one of these versions is an inappropriate rendition of a song that tells the story of a hanging that took place 121 years ago in West Virginia?
I suppose you could say that the alterations represent the folk process at work. Why would a singer seek to reproduce a song with the sound that any of these other performers brought to it? When delivering an old folk song like "John Hardy," it's usually better to discover how the song sounds once you've rendered it through your own experiences and understanding of the world. That, of course, takes hard work ... but it's so worth it.