The song John Hardy has long been a staple of the bluegrass canon. Tony Russell’s Country Music Records: A Discography, 1921-1942; lists seven prewar recordings by five different performers:
- Eva Davis: April, 1924
- Ernest Stoneman: August, 1925, July, 1928
- Buell Kazee: April, 1927
- The Carter Family: May, 1928
- Clarence Ashley: April, 1930 (as ‘Old John Hardy’)
- Roy Harvey: June 1931
Here’s an MP3 of the second Stoneman Recording, recorded in Richmond, Indiana for the Gennett Label, on July 9th, 1928:
Postwar recordings by Bill Monroe helped cement the song’s place in the repertoire. Earl Scruggs helped make it an instrumental standard as well, with his excellent interpretation on the seminal Foggy Mountain Banjo album, now out of print and agonizingly expensive.
Though the usual lyrics sound include some commonplace elements, John Hardy was a real historical figure. Hardy, a West Virginia railroad worker, was found guilty of murder in the first degree in 1893, and hanged in 1894. WVCulture.org has links to original news stories. First, the trial:
WELCH, W. VA., October 12. – At 8 o’clock this morning the jury in the case of the State against John Hardy, colored, for the murder of Thomas Drews, colored, at Eckman, this county, in January last, brought in a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree. The trouble arose over a game of craps and was a cold blooded crime. Motion has been made for a new trial with but small hopes of success on account of the Criminal Court Judge’s indisposition. A recess has been taken until Monday morning.
…And then the execution:
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.
Ten drunken and disorderly persons among the spectators were promptly arrested and jailed. Good order was preserved. Hardy killed Drews near Eckman last spring in a disagreement over a game of craps.
BOTH WERE ENAMORED
of the same woman, and the latter proving the more favored lover, incurred Hardy’s envy, who seized the pretext of falling out in the game to work vengeance on Drews, who had shown himself equally expert in dice as in love, having won money from Hardy. Hardy drew his pistol, remarking he would kill him unless he refunded the money. Drews paid back part of the money, when Hardy shot, killing him. Hardy was found guilty at the October term.
The MP3 comes from the excellent Juneberry 78s website. Please consider buying one of their old-time music samplers to support their work.