Monday, September 6, 2010

"Nine Pound Hammer Is Too Heavy" - The Monroe Brothers


Set Four: The "Lost" Volume; Disc One; Track Seven: "Nine Pound Hammer Is Too Heavy" performed by The Monroe Brothers. Recorded in Charlotte, North Carolina on February 17, 1936.

Bluegrass pioneers Charlie and Bill Monroe were born on their family's farm near Rosine, Kentucky. Charlie was born on July 4, 1903. Bill was born on September 13, 1911. Their parents, James Buchanan Monroe and Malissa Vandiver Monroe, had eight children, all of whom grew up playing musical instruments. Charlie settled on guitar, while Bill took up the mandolin.

Charlie and Bill, along with brother Birch, formed a band during the 1920s. They started playing on local radio in 1927. When their parents died, however, Bill was sent to live with his uncle Pendleton Vandiver, a fiddler who was later immortalized in song as "Uncle Pen." Charlie and Birch moved to Detroit to look for work, eventually relocating to Hammond, Indiana where they worked in an oil refinery. In 1929, Bill joined them in Indiana, also working in the oil industry. Reunited, the brothers began playing together again.

In 1932, Bill, Charlie, and Birch were heard by a musician on the WSM Barn Dance program and were offered a job as dancers. They toured for two years with Tom Owens before being offered work as musicians on Indiana radio stations WAE and WJKS. This in turn led to the Monroes being offered their own program, sponsored by Texas Crystals. Birch refused the offer, but Bill and Charlie signed on as the Monroe Brothers. The show was successful, and was broadcast daily on WBT in Charlotte, North Carolina, where J.E. Mainer and his Crazy Mountaineer where also performing.

In 1936, the Monroe Brothers made their recording debut for Bluebird Records, recording several sides, including this version of "Nine Pound Hammer Is Too Heavy." Bill and Charlie recorded together until 1938, when Bill left the group, resentful of Charlie's role as lead singer.

In the wake of Bill's departure, Charlie formed the Kentucky Pardners, a group that featured a number of future Bluegrass stars in its line-up over the years, including Lester Flatt, Red Rector, Curly Seckler, and Ira Louvin. The Kentucky Pardners was a successful group, touring and recording for such labels as RCA and Decca. Charlie continued to record and tour until 1957, when he retired. By then, Bluegrass music was being superseded by rock and roll, as well as the slicker country sounds coming from Nashville. Charlie emerged from his retirement in 1972 to perform at the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival, where he made a tremendous hit. Charlie continued to perform at festivals until his diagnosis with cancer in 1974. He died on September 27, 1975 at his farm in Reidsville, North Carolina.

After leaving the Monroe Brothers in 1938, Bill moved to Little Rock, Arkansas where he formed the Kentuckians. The group was short lived, however, and Bill relocated to Atlanta, Georgia where he formed the Blue Grass Boys singer/guitarist Cleo Davis, fiddler Art Wooten, and bassist Amos Garren. It was the success of Monroe's group that would eventually give the name to the emerging form known as Bluegrass music.

In 1939, Monroe successfully auditioned for the Grand Ole Oprey. By 1940, Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, with a new line-up featuring singer/guitarist Clyde Moody, fiddler Tommy Magness, and bassist Bill Wesbrooks, had signed to RCA where they recorded a version of Jimmie Rodgers' "Mule Skinner Blues." Many of the elements that came to characterize Bluegrass, such as fast tempos and instrumental virtuosity, were present in these early recordings. However, it was not until 1945 and the addition of banjo prodigy Earl Scruggs to the group that all of the elements were finally in place. Scruggs joined a version of the Blue Grass Boys that featured singer/guitarist Lester Flatt, fiddler Chubby Wise, and bassist Howard Watts. By this point, the group was recording for Columbia records. The 28 song recorded by the group between 1946 and 1947 would become the defining classics of the Bluegrass genre. Among the songs recorded during these sessions was Monroe's signature piece, "Blue Moon of Kentucky," which would be covered by Elvis Presley during his sessions for Sun Records in 1955. In 1948, Flatt and Scruggs left Monroe to form the legendary Foggy Mountain Boys.

Following the departure of Flatt and Scruggs, Monroe regrouped and entered into what many consider to be the "golden age" of his career. A new line-up, consisting of Jimmy Martin on guitar and lead vocal, Rudy Lyle on banjo, and a string of fiddlers, including Merle "Red" Taylor, Charlie Cline, Bobby Hicks and Vassar Clements, made a series of recordings that are considered to be every bit the classics as those recorded by the Flatt/Scruggs edition of the band.

By the late '50s, the same factors that derailed brother Charlie's career (the emergence of rock and roll and a more sophisticated brand of country music) led to a decline in fortune for Bill Monroe. It wasn't until the folk revival of the early '60s that Monroe and his kind of playing came back into style. It was during this period that Monroe's style was dubbed "bluegrass," to distinguish it from the string band music that preceded it and the slicker country that followed.

Although initially slow to respond to the renewed interest in his music, Monroe eventually began performing at Bluegrass festivals, including the Bean Blossom Festival in southern Indiana, founded by Monroe himself. Monroe would go on to become the elder statesman of Bluegrass. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970, the Nashville Songwriter Hall of Fame in 1971, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. Monroe is one of only five performers to be honored by all three halls.

Monroe inspired a generation of musicians, including Ricky Scaggs, who first performed with Monroe when he was six years old.

Monroe died on September 9, 1996, several months after suffering a stroke.

"Nine Pound Hammer Is A Little Too Heavy" is a version of "Spike Driver Blues" and a member of the "John Henry" family of songs.


Nine pound hammer,
(Nine pound hammer,)
Is a little too heavy,
(Little too heavy,)
For my size.
(For my size.)
Now for my size.

Roll on buddy,
(Roll on buddy,)
Don't you roll so slow.
(Don't you roll so slow.)
Baby, how can I roll
(Baby, how can I roll)
When the wheel won't go?

Ain't one hammer
(Ain't one hammer)
In this tunnel
(In this tunnel)
That rings like mine.
(Oh it rings like mine.)
That rings like mine.

Rings like silver
(Rings like silver)
And it shines like gold.
(And it shine like gold.)
Rings like silver
(Oh, it rings like silver)
And it shines like gold.

Somebody stole
(Somebody stole)
My nine pound hammer.
(Nine pound hammer.)
They took it and gone.
(They took it and gone.)
They took it and gone.

Roll on buddy,
(Roll on buddy,)
Don't you roll so slow.
(Don't you roll so slow.)
Baby, how can I roll
(Baby, how can I roll)
When the wheel won't go?

Up on the mountain
(Up on the mountain)
For to see my darlin'
(See my darlin')
And I ain't comin' back.
(And I ain't comin' back.)
No, I ain't comin' back.

Roll on buddy,
(Roll on buddy,)
Don't you roll so slow.
(Don't you roll so slow.)
Baby, how can I roll
(Baby, how can I roll)
When the wheel won't go?

Nine pound hammer
(Nine pound hammer)
That killed John Henry
(Killed John Henry)
Ain't a-gonna kill me.
(Ain't gonna kill me.)
Ain't gonna kill me.

Roll on buddy,
(Roll on buddy,)
Don't you roll so slow.
(Don't you roll so slow.)
Baby, how can I roll
(Baby, how can I roll)
When the wheel won't go?


The Monroe Brothers' version of "Nine Pound Hammer Is Too Heavy" features Bill's infectious mandolin playing as well as Charlie and Bill's alternating/overlapping vocals and sweet harmonies. The song differs from "Spike Driver Blues," recorded nearly ten years earlier, in several ways. First, the Monroe Brothers' song is not a protest. When Mississippi John Hurt sings that "this is the hammer that killed John Henry. But it won't kill me," it is because the speaker in his version is quitting. When the Monroe Brothers sing the same line, it is a challenge or a boast. In fact, the line about John Henry's hammer is the only line the two songs have in common. The reference in the song's repeated chorus to "roll[ing] on" is similar to "Buddy Won't You Roll Down The Line." I'm not sure what "rolling" is in this context, but the fact that it turns up in two work songs seems significant.

Like many of the performers on this volume, the Monroe Brothers started in radio before becoming recording artists. The Monroe Brothers also perform in a style that points to music that was to come, rather than the folk styles of the past.

"Nine Pound Hammer Is Too Heavy" is the fourth and last song in a row recorded in Charlotte, North Carolina (recorded just four months before the recordings made by J.E. Mainer's Mountaineers and the Blue Sky Boys). It is also the last of four recordings in a row to feature brother acts, and is the second of three songs in a row that are variations of songs featured on the original three volume Anthology.

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Here's Merle Travis in a 1950s television appearance performing a version of "Nine Pound Hammer Is A Little Too Heavy."



Download and listen to the Monroe Brothers - "Nine Pound Hammer Is A Little Too Heavy"

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