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.
“John Henry” performed by James Roberts from Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia. Click 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.