“John Henry” by James Roberts

James Roberts is the son of Dink Roberts, who is featured in Cece Conway’s book African Banjo Echos in Appalachia.

James Roberts’ performance of this well-known tune is fascinating because he breaks the melodic fragments down to modular, cell-like pieces that can be expanded or contracted  by adding or subtracting a beat. The result is a performance with ever-shifting phrase lengths that keeps the listener surprised and delighted by Roberts’ take on the song. For example, the fragment in measure 3 is the same material as measures 7, 11, 14 & 21. However, in measure 3 the fragment is four beats long while the fragment is three beats long in the other measures. This cell-like structure leads me to believe that Roberts performance is as much improvised as it is planned out. I imagine the specific fragments/riffs are set, but the order in which they occur and their specific length can be altered during performance.

Also, I have used colors in my transcription to experiment with a way to notate the particular strings Roberts uses. At the top left of the transcription is a key to the color scheme.

Here is a 10 second clip corresponding to measures 1-6 in the transcription below.

“John Henry” performed by James Roberts from Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and VirginiaClick on the link to preview or purchase the song on the Folkways website. Note: I have done my best to transcribe the performance accurately, but of course I am sure there are errors! Click here for the pdf version of the transcription.


John Henry with colors

3 Replies to ““John Henry” by James Roberts”

  1. Wonderful to see this and interestingly thoughtful. The colors are cool. Certainly James and Dink, like all black banjo players known to me, are improvisational.
    James is still alive tho not in good shape. We could go see him probably in early May as the semester is winding down if you want.
    Maybe you will transcribe one of Dink’s tunes? (There are a few in my book that Tommy Thompson did.) Also with tab. Do you play music?
    Blind Boy Paxton will be in Chapel HIll with John Cohen and some Dust Busters or DownHillStrugglers on Monday April 8 at the Night Light 8 or 8:30 and back on Thursday at the Art Center at 8:15. Tell Laurant hello. Best, Cece (ps I think you may mean “listeners” in one of the early sentences.)

  2. Hi Cece! Thanks for the comments!

    I would love to meet James. That would be really wonderful. I have transcribed Dink’s “Coo Coo” (you can find it under the Coo Coo: A Study tab) and I hope to do others as well. Right now I am working on a transcription of his “Garfield,” which will be a nice one to compare to James’ “John Henry.” I do play, though not much in public.

    Thanks for the heads-up about the concerts coming up. I am going to try to make the Monday evening show.


    (Oh, and I fixed that typo–thanks!)

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