20 December, 2009

"John Hardy Was A Desperate Little Man" - The Carter Family

Set One: Ballads; Disc Two; Track Three: "John Hardy Was A Desperate Little Man" performed by The Carter Family. "Vocal solo (by Sara Carter) with autoharp, guitar." Recorded in Camden, New Jersey on May 10, 1928. Original issue Victor 40190A.

The Carter Family consisted of A.P. (Alvin Pleasant) Delaney Carter, his wife Sara Dougherty Carter and sister-in-law Maybelle Addington Carter. All three were born and raised in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. The group was formed in 1927 when A.P. convinced Sara and Maybelle to make the trip to Bristol, Tennessee in order to audition for Ralph Peer of Victor Records. Peer recorded the Carters (along with Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Stoneman, Ernest Phipps and His Holiness Singers and Eck Dunford) and their first release (including the song "Single Girl, Married Girl", which appears later on the Anthology) was an immediate success. Peer then brought the Carter Family to Camden, New Jersey in May, 1928 for a follow up session which produced what became several of the Carters' signature recordings, including "John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man." The Carter Family went on to become one of the leading lights of Country music. The group disbanded in 1936 when Sara (who has been estranged from A.P. for several years by this point) remarried and moved to California. Maybelle would later reform the Carter Family around herself and her three daughters, Anita, June, and Helen. June Carter would - of course - go on to marry and perform with Johnny Cash. Their son, John Carter Cash, continues to work as a musician and producer, making the Carter Family the single most enduring musical dynasty in American history.

A.P. Carter (1891-1960) sang harmony and occasional lead vocals and was the group's principle songwriter (although many of the songs A.P. "wrote" were actually folk songs collected by him and Lesley Riddle, an African-American guitar player). Maybelle Carter (1909-1978) was the group's principle guitarist, although she also played autoharp and banjo. Maybelle was a hugely influential guitarist thanks to her "scratch" style, also known as "Carter Family picking":

Perhaps the most remarkable of Maybelle's many talents was her skill as a guitarist. She revolutionized the instrument's role by developing a style in which she played melody lines on the bass strings with her thumb while rhythmically strumming with her fingers. Her innovative technique, to this day known as the Carter Scratch, influenced the guitar's shift from rhythm to lead instrument.
- Holly George-Warren.

Sara Carter (1898-1979) was the group's lead singer and autoharpist. Sara's deadpan vocal style epitomized the stoicism of the poor whites of the American southeast. Her primary instrument was the autoharp, a chorded zither which has a series of bars attached to dampers. When depressed, the dampers mute all but the desired strings. The autoharp was invented in the late 19th century, either by Charles Zimmerman or by Karl August Gütter (there is dispute over the true origin of the instrument). Whether invented by Zimmerman or Gütter, it was Zimmerman who started manufacturing the instrument in 1885 to great success.

The real John Hardy was an African-American working in the railroad tunnels of West Virginia. He murdered a co-worker during a crap game and was sentenced to hang on January 19, 1894. In his liner notes, Smith reproduces the order of execution:

State of West Virginia vs. John Hardy. Felony. This day came again the State by her attorney and the prisoner who stands convicted of murder in the first degree.... The prisoner saying nothing why such sentence should be passed.... It is therefore considered by the court that the prisoner, John Hardy, is guilty... and that the said John Hardy be hanged by the neck until dead... on Friday the 19th day of January 1894.

Alan Lomax provides the following additional information:

His 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 order for his execution shows that he was hanged near the courthouse in McDowell County, January 19, 1894. His ballad appears to have been based upon certain formulae stanzas from the Anglo-Saxon ballad stock....

In his notes to the previous track, "Charles Giteau," Smith notes that that song was also allegedly composed by the song's subject.

Whether actually composed by Hardy or not, "John Hardy" became a popular song and has since been performed by numerous artists. It was first recorded in 1924 by Eva Davis. It has since been performed by Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead, Bill Frissell, Petra Haden, Uncle Tupelo, and others.

John Hardy, he was a desperate little man,
He carried two guns every day.
He shot a man on the West Virginia line,
And you ought seen John Hardy getting away.

John Hardy, he got to the Keystone Bridge,
He thought that he would be free.
And up stepped a man and took him by his arm,
Says, "Johnny, walk along with me."

He sent for his poppy and his mommy, too,
To come and go his bail.
But money won't go a murdering case;
They locked John Hardy back in jail.

John Hardy, he had a pretty little girl,
That dress that she wore was blue.
As she came skipping through the old jail hall,
Saying, "Poppy, I've been true to you."

John Hardy, he had another little girl,
That dress that she wore was red.
She followed John Hardy to his hanging ground,
Saying, "Poppy, I would rather be dead."

"I been to the East and I been to the West,
I been this wide world around.
I been to the river and I been baptized,
And now I'm on my hanging ground."

John Hardy walked out on his scaffold high,
With his loving little wife by his side.
And the last words she heard poor John-O say,
"I'll meet you in that sweet bye-and-bye."

This recording marks the first appearance of a female vocalist on the Anthology. It is a magnificent performance. Maybelle's guitar playing is strong and confident, while Sara's vocals are youthful, yet resigned. This song also marks the first of seven recordings by the Carter Family that Smith included in the Anthology, counting the originally unpublished fourth volume; more than any other single artist. This is fitting, as the Carters certainly rank as one of the single most important popular American musicians.

"John Hardy Was A Desperate Little Man" rounds out a rogues gallery of three tracks in a row about notorious badmen (along with "Bandit Cole Younger" and "Charles Giteau").

Revenge of the Shameless Plug Department: Check out the third episode of the "Where Dead Voices Gather" podcast. This week's episode is a special program of holiday music, featuring performances by Bessie Smith, Count Basie, Charles Brown, and Fiddlin' John Carson, as well as Christmas music from Trinidad, the Ukraine and Puerto Rico. Also available on iTunes. Subscribe now so you don't miss a single episode!

You can also become a fan of "Where Dead Voices Gather" on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Where Dead Voices Gather: Using today's technology to promote yesterday's music!

Here's a short film of Roscoe Holcomb performing "John Hardy."

Here's a wonderful performance by Maybelle and Sara Carter in a 1970s television appearance performing "While The Band Plays Dixie."

Download and listen to The Carter Family - "John Hardy Was A Desperate Little Man"


  1. Great history of these songs and I appreciate that you posted the lyrics, too. Thanks for sharing! I enjoyed reading this very much.

  2. Do you know what a 'used' 78 rpm of The Carter Family's 'John Hardy was a Desperate Little Man' would be worth?