"It's a long John": Traditional African-American Work Songs
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“It’s a long John”: Traditional African-American Work Songs

Spirituals and work songs, rooted in both the slavery era and the West African societies from which most African-American slaves were originally taken, provided cultural sustenance to African Americans in the midst of intense racial oppression. They first came to be valued by northern white audiences in the late-19th century. Later, folklorists began collecting (and eventually recording) traditional southern music. John and Alan Lomax recorded southern musicians (African-American, white, and Mexican-American) for the Library of Congress. They recorded “Long John,” a work song, sung by a man identified as “Lightning” and a group of his fellow black convicts at Darrington State Prison Farm in Texas in 1934. Black prisoners working in gangs to break rocks and clear swamps relied on the repeated rhythms and chants of work songs (originating in the forced gang labor of slavery) to set the pace for their collective labor. “Long John” mixed religious and secular concerns, including the notion of successful escape from bondage, a deeply felt desire of both slaves and prisoners.

Listen to Audio:

“Long John”

All lines are repeated.


l. It’s a long John,

He’s a long gone,

Like a turkey through the corn,

Through the long corn.

2. Well, my John said,

In the ten chap ten,

"If a man die,

He will live again."

Well, they crucified Jesus

And they nailed him to the cross;

Sister Mary cried,

“My child is lost!”


Well, long John,

He’s long gone,

He’s long gone.

Mister John, John,

Old Big-eye John,

Oh, John, John,

It’s a long John.

3. Says-uh: "Come on, gal,

And-uh shut that do',"

Says, "The dogs is comin'

And I’ve got to go."


It’s a long John,

He’s long gone,

It’s a long John,

He’s a long gone.

4. "Well-a two, three minutes,

Let me catch my win';

In-a two, three minutes,

I’m gone again."


He’s long John,

He’s long gone,

He’s long gone,

He’s long gone.

5. Well, my John said

Just before he did,

"Well, I’m goin' home,

See Mary Lid."


He’s John, John,

Old John, John,

With his long clothes on,

Just a-skippin' through the corn.

6. Well, my John said

On the fourth day,

Well, to "tell my rider

That I’m on my way."


He’s long gone,

He’s long gone,

He’s long gone,

It’s a long John.

7. "Gonna call this summer,

Ain’t gon‘ call no mo’,

If I call next summer,

Be in Baltimore."

He’s long gone.

Source: Afro-American Spirituals, Work Songs, and Ballads, ed. Alan Lomax (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress Archive of Folk Song, AFS L3). Sung by “Lightning” and a group of Afro-American convicts at Darrington State Prison Farm, Sandy Point, Texas, 1934. Recorded by John A. and Alan Lomax.

See Also:"Run Old Jeremiah": Echoes of the Ring Shout
"Trouble So Hard": Singing of Slavery and Freedom