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New Railroad

[ Roud 17886 ; trad.]

Jim Mageean and Johnny Collins sang New Railroad in 1979 on their Sweet Folk and Country album Make the Rafters Roar.

Chris Sherburn and Denny Bartley sang New Railroad in 2009 on their Noe album Lucy Wan, and Sherburn Bartley Sanders returned to it in 2018 on their album Beguile. Denny Bartley noted:

I first heard a version of New Railroad from Harry Gurevitch in Hull in 1989. Harry was a country blues musician and, having spent many hours in his company, his thinking has definitely influenced this version. I dedicate it to his memory.

This version has been given a new direction by us. We’ve written four new verses and amalgamated some lines from original versions with new lines to make the song a tale of emigration. The famines of the 1830/40’s saw a great many Irish forced to work the railroads of the USA. Because the original version has a very bluegrass feel to it, the song didn’t work for us. The chorus has haunted us since Hull days in the early 1990’s though, so we had to do something with it. As Wayne Erbsen says in his book Railroad Fever, “Like a rolling boxcar, New Railroad doesn’t stay put but is always on the go, being passed from one singer to another, changing as it goes.” It’s definitely done that.

John Henry was an important symbol of the working class, depicted as a black man wielding a sledge hammer and represented marginalisation in changing times of the 19th century.

For original versions check out Sara Grey or the band, Crooked Still. Crooked Still have a great version on YouTube.

Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar sang The New Railroad in 2012 on their Fellside album The Queen’s Lover.

Andy Turner sang Working on the New Railroad as the 29 July 2016 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week.

Alden Patterson and Dashwood sang (Working on the New) Railroad on their 2018 CD By the Night.

Bonny Light Horseman sang Mountain Rain in 2020 on their eponymous album Bonny Light Horseman. The song borrows lines from the first verse of Working on the New Railroad about working alongside John Henry and his hammer and extends into a lyric about not finding light at the end the tunnel.


Chris Sherburn and Denny Bartley sing New Railroad

Working on the new railroad with mud up to my knees
Working on the new railroad with mud up to my knees
Digging for big John Henry he’s so hard to please
I’ve been around the world.

I came out with the new railroad to work for John Henry,
We’ve laid track through every town, watched new towns come to be.
The money that we’re making, we’re spending kind of free
And I’ve been around the world.


There’s a girl that I love, she sits deep in my mind,
At the end of each hard working day, I see her dressed so fine.
When I get away from here, I’m going to ask her to be mine,
And I’ve been around the world.

You came out here a single girl, you wear a dress so fine.
Single girl, single girl, where did you get to be so fine.
I got my dress from a railroad man, my shoes from a driver on the line,
And I’ve been around the world.


I know things will be different and life will be so fine
When I get through these new towns out on John Henry’s line.
This railroad’s moving so fast its eating up my time,
I’ve been around the world.

The new railroad is ready now with cars out on the track,
New railroad is ready there are cars out on the track.
Now I’ve made my money, I’m never coming back,
I’ve been around the world.


Thirty years have rolled away, like the cars going up the line,
I’m left in this dusty town, with nothing much that’s mine.
The beer and girls I pay for are the only friends I find,
And I’ve been around the world.