Americana roots rockers The Steel Wheels stopped by the Paste Studio on Wednesday to merge the old with the new, showing off tracks from their latest record, Wild As We Came Here, as well as their take on “Spike Driver Blues” a classic American standard.
“Spike Driver Blues” is one of many songs in the folk canon that tells the story of John Henry, the railroad-working steel-driver whose strength and skill was once tested against a steam-powered hammer. John Henry won the contest, only to die from stress and exhaustion with the hammer still in hand.
Here’s an exclusive recording of Doc Watson playing “Spike Driver Blues” in 1970:
The legend of John Henry eventually turned into a “hammer song,” or a tune sung to encourage laborers to continue working, often to a beat that would match the stroke of a hammer. Under different titles and tempos, the legend lives on in various versions, but almost always includes the lines, “This old hammer killed John Henry / but it won’t kill me.”
And here’s an exclusive recording of the song by the Jerry Garcia Band in 1987.
Made famous with renditions by Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson, Jerry Garcia, Taj Mahal, Marianne Faithfull and many others, “Spike Driver Blues” has both a musical and mythological history for contemporary covers to live up to. Steel Wheels frontman Trent Wagler explained the resonance of the song.
“I think, as a lot of artists have, once you start to dig into American music and you realize how much there is out there to hear,” he said. “For me it was that exciting moment of realizing all these treasures that I never heard. Doc Watson was one of them, but in the midst of that I remember getting into Mississippi John Hurt a little bit. He’s the first recording that I heard of this song, but also around that same time I got to see Doc play at an outdoor venue in Virginia, and it just blew my mind.”
Watch The Steel Wheels revitalizing rendition of “Spike Driver Blues,” as well as their full session with tracks from their new album, Wild As We Came Here.