Friday, February 21, 2014

Manfred Mann: John Hardy

Manfred Mann’s “B” Side of “John Hardy” may be the only song about West Virginia by a British Invasion band of the 1960s. The song is based on a January 1893 murder in Welch in McDowell County in which railroad worker John Hardy killed Thomas Drews. Hardy was subsequently hanged a year later on January 19, 1894.

According to the Wheeling Daily Register of January 20, 1894,

John Hardy, for killing Thomas Drews, both colored, was hung at 2:09 p. m. today [January 19]. 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 first known recording of the folk song was in 1924 by Eva Davis on the Columbia label - 30 years after the hanging. Manfred Mann’s version appeared 40 years later as the flip side to their 1964 hit “Sha La La,” which charted at #12. Lead singer Paul Jones played the harmonica on “John Hardy.”

Several lines and verses of the original folk song were omitted from Manfred Mann’s version – most notably that he “killed a man on the West Virginia line” and the events surrounding his hanging. Some of the other recordings of the song took liberties with the account; interestingly, Manfred Mann’s rendition was somewhat more accurate than many American recordings.

John Hardy should not be confused with another West Virginia railroad worker – John Henry who was also immortalized in song and had died in the 1870s racing the steam drill in the excavation of the Big Bend Tunnel near Talcott in Summers County.

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