He said that he was born William George Tucker, though we’ll never really be sure. For the life of the man better known as John Henry Barbee is shrouded in as much myth as the man he would re-name himself for.
The original John Henry. A steel driving man.
Tucker was born in Tennessee in 1905, the same year that Albert Einstein published four papers that changed our understanding of the workings of the universe forever.
He knew little about space and time, had probably never even heard the name Einstein, but he understood more about hardship and toil down here on Earth than most. Shit, he had to. He worked in the farms and on the fields of Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama during the depression.
He’d also play guitar and sing the blues in the evening whenever he could. On street corners and in bars. It could be enough for a meal ticket and a place to kip for the night.
His face bore the lines and the marks of it all.
His front teeth were missing. The remaining ones at the side shone out like freshly erected marble tombstones in the void of his mouth. His glasses were thick. His stubble raw like ground shards of glass.
He sung with an almost wistful weariness. Accepting of his poor luck.
And it was never suggested for even a moment that he’d struck a deal with the devil to play guitar, because nobody could strike a deal that bad. For nothing would come easily to him. He’d been born the wrong colour in the wrong place at the wrong time.
His hands were scarred too, but the dexterity in his fingers never receded. He made his first recordings on September the eighth, 1938.
Tucker had to change his name to John Henry Barbee because he had come upon his wife being harassed by an unknown assailant one night. He was raging and impotent and he knew his aim was good.
So he shot him.
It turned out he’d only winged the aggressor. He’d only shot him in the leg, but how was he to know? He’d already fled the scene. Got his wife and got the hell out of there before he could find out the worst.
He started running, and wouldn’t stop. He’d been moving his whole life anyway, but now he was certain that he had the blood of a dead white man on those fine, dextrous hands.
He worked in a launderette. He served briefly in the army. And he kept on moving with his guitar under his arm.
Eventually, hard-bitten, southern blues music became an essential soundtrack in the houses of much more fortunate young men trying to impress much more fortunate young women on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
They’d smoke Moroccan hash. They’d drink all night. And they’d spin out romantic tales about these great blues musicians.
As they’d talk of the legend of the original John Henry, whose name had been enshrined in a thousand songs. The man so strong at driving steel into the crevices of mountainsides for the inserting of dynamite, he took on a steam-powered machine and won.
Only to die with a hammer in his hand. Or so the story goes.
These young men and women gave Barbee a shot at recognition of sorts in the end. He toured Europe with Willie Dixon Jr. He recorded his only LP in Copenhagen, 1964, for Storyville records, an imprint founded by a romantic, bookish looking Danish engineer who had grown fed up with his job at the phone company.
That record shimmers in places, and culminates, of course, with its best moment. His version of “John Henry.”
But Barbee fell ill. So ill he would have to return home. Even he, who had survived everything this shitty world had thrown at him so far. Malignant cancer cells were worming their way through his ageing, battered body.
When I tell people the story of John Henry Barbee it causes a slight knot in the bottom of my stomach to tighten. I know in doing so I am pressing my nose up against the window of his misery.I crane my neck to see stories like his to realise my own good fortune.
His LP is good, but it is also largely unremarkable in the scheme of things. When held up coldly against others made by his peers.
Were his story less tragic, had he found the slightest glimpse of redemption, he’d remain as a cureo. A name on a record, brandished by collectors. But his isn’t one of triumph in the face of adversity. There is a reason the bookies always win. The odds against his success were exactly right.
He never stood a chance. It’s why I still tell people his story.
Facing death back home Barbee cashed in the chips he’d earned from the attentions of those earnest young men and women in Europe. He bought a car. A big American car. The greatest status symbol of all.
But he’d barely driven in his life. One day he lost control of it, it fishtailed and he hit a helpless pedestrian who died shortly afterwards from his injuries.
John Henry Barbee, himself, died in prison a few weeks later. He was 58 years old.
It was 55 years and one day ago today.