On my best days, I'm Jesus trying
not to reach for the bread in the desert.
Or Hercules burning the hydra's corpse
one more time to make sure. I'm nothing
but a boy with trembling hands
trying to finish his father's work.

This is the hammer killed John Henry.
Won't kill me. Won't kill me.
This is the hammer killed your daddy.
Throw it down and we'll be free.

Every black boy is a gambler
because we have to bet one extra drop
of sweat will make up for the losses in Sloss
and Pratt and Coosa and Commerce Street.
Every black boy is a hustler
because we know how fast we have to be
to outrun the law and lash and long shadows
left by our fathers hanging in the sky.

This is the hammer killed John Henry.
Won't kill me. Won't kill me.
This is the hammer killed your daddy.
Throw it down and we'll be free.

My bank account will never be big enough
to buy the freedom of all the ghosts
who died knowing a shackle as the last
thing that ever hugged them. My money will never be right
enough to right all this wrong. But I got to go
because I got work in the morning and boss told me I better not be late again.

This is the hammer killed John Henry.
Won't kill me. Won't kill me.
This is the hammer killed your daddy.
Throw it down and we'll be free.



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Italics taken from “Polly Ann's Hammer” by Our Native Daughters. The song appears on the album Songs of Our Native Daughters (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2019)