The song of the week is 'John Henry' in the key of D.
'John Henry' is a traditional American folk song/ballad that has been played as a bluegrass song, either with or without lyrics, by a wide range of top-notch bluegrass artists. When arranged as a bluegrass instrumental, it is most commonly played as a banjo-feature tune. The three most common keys that bluegrass instrumental versions of John Henry are played in are G, C, and D, and those just happen to be the three keys that are the most convenient for the banjo to play in when a capo is not being used.
John Henry has no chorus, only verses. If one were to try to collect all the versions of the lyrics for John Henry together that one can find in books, on records, and on the internet, it would not take long before one had way too many verses to sing for a single performance of the song. Most Bluegrass versions of the song that I have heard use at most 5 or 6 of the many different verses that the song has accumulated over the years, though I have tended to include recorded versions of the song here that use more verses than this in order to give more examples of verses used for John Henry. For playing the song at a jam in which sufficient time needs to be given for everyone to get their breaks in, 5 or 6 verses is more than enough to sing, and is, of course, more manageable for memorization purposes.
For your own arrangement of the song, I suggest choosing 5 or 6 verses that you like best and string them together in an order that makes sense to you. You may find some of the verses easier to commit to memory than others, and you may also find that putting the verses in one order instead of another makes them easier to memorize.
Here is a variety of bluegrass versions of John Henry to take a listen to, some with vocals, others without vocals:
Flatt & Scruggs - key of D instrumental (banjo breaks are based on the melody an octave higher than as written on the attached banjo tab melody sheet)
Doc & Merle Watson - key of D
Tony Furtado - key of G instrumental (This is my all time favorite banjo-feature instrumental version of John Henry.)
Bill Monroe - key of G (very sharp, almost G#)
Hylo Brown (with Earl Scruggs on banjo) - key of B (sung in two different octaves!)
Bluegrass Youth All Stars - key of A
The Bluegrass Album Band - key of G instrumental
The Foggy Hogtown Boys - key of E (Unlike the previous versions, this one has 6m chords in it)
Form & Progression
The form for the verses (and breaks based on the verses) is 5 lines (instead of the much more common 4 lines) consisting of 4 measures each, making a total of 20 measures.
The chord progression I use for John Henry is the most common one (and is the progression that has always been used for the song up to this point at the jam):
Notice that this progression is closely related to V1 on the basic chord progressions chart (i.e., the progression used to play Canaan's Land, Gathering Flowers From The Hillside, and Fireball Mail). In relating the two progressions to each other, one might think of the progression for John Henry as being V1 with an extra 1111 line added between lines 3 and 4 of V1.
Alternative progressions for John Henry include:
In versions that use the first of these three alternative progressions, the melody for line 2 necessarily differs from the version of the melody given in the attached melody sheets.
When the second or third of these progressions are used, the melody in the second part of line 3 need not differ all that much from the version of the melody given in the attachments.
The version of the melody given in the attachments would be entirely major pentatonic (major scale notes 1,2,3,5, and 6: do-re-mi-sol-la) were it not for the b7 note in measure 2 of line 2 (a C natural note in the key of D; a Bb note in the key of C). Because of the exact spot where this note occurs in the melody, one should avoid playing the typical descending 2 note run C#, B (key of D) or B, A (key of C) in backup for leading from the 1 chord to the 5 chord. If one desires to play a two-note descending run here, just copy the melody at that point: C, B (key of D), or Bb, A (key of C), which just so happen to be the very two notes that one would typically play for the last two notes of the three notes that make up a typical chromatic three-note descending run leading from the 1 chord down to the 5 chord.
The melody of John Henry has the same range as the melody for Liza Jane, Buffalo Gals: the lowest and the highest notes in the melody are both the root note of the key (e.g., D notes when in the key of D, or C notes when in the key of C) and almost the same range as the melodies for Wreck Of The Old '97 and Y'all Come. These are all melodies that I feel most comfortable singing in the key of D.
You might notice that almost all of the songs that I sing at the jam in the key of G also have D notes as their lowest and highest (or second to highest) notes. In these cases, the range of the melody is such that the root note of the key is right in the middle of the range of the melody, rather than at the very bottom or top of the range of the melody. This is a much more typical range for Bluegrass songs; hence, there are many more songs that I sing in G than in D.
Sometimes I will purposely overshoot the melody of John Henry on the last half of measure 1 of line 3 by reaching for either an F natural or a F# note (when singing in the key of D), and when this is done, and I manage to reach the F#, then the melody has the same range as that for Wildwood Flower.
Banjo: D Tuning
When John Henry is played in the key of D, Scruggs-style banjo players commonly tune their banjo to an open D chord for playing it (F#DF#AD or ADF#AD). D tuning is used on the first two recordings provided here. Notice how much more frequently one can use open strings for grabbing the melody for John Henry in D when tuned this way (see the attached banjo tab melody sheet) than what one could if one were tuned to the bluegrass banjo default tuning (G tuning).
Guitar: C capo 2 = D
Due to both the range of the melody and the specific notes that the melody most frequently lingers on, I find that John Henry in the key of C (no capo) lends itself to a wider range of types of bluegrass guitar breaks than what the key of D (no capo) does. For this reason, I have given a key of C guitar tab melody sheet (capo 2 for D), rather than a key of D guitar tab melody sheet.