You’ll find no shortage of prison songs and railroad songs in the bluegrass canon, and sometimes you’ll find songs that cover both. “Nine Pound Hammer” is all about swinging a big hammer, and its lyrics come from the laborers and chain gangs that worked on railroads in the post-Civil War era.
Fiddlin’ Charlie Bowman from Johnson City, Tenn.—one of the best bluegrass towns in America—is usually credited as the one who wrote it. However, according to Bowman’s descendants, he freely admitted where the lyrics came from. Bowman’s band The Hillbillies recorded the song in 1927 and were the first we know of to do so.
Whenever Bowman doesn’t get the songwriting credit, Merle Travis does. Travis had a big hit with “Nine Pound Hammer” in the 1940s and even added the verse about Harlan and Hazard that has become standard in most versions. Travis, of course, was a finger-picker rather than a flatpicker, but the song remains a favorite of flatpicking guitarists as well.
The I-I-IV-IV-I-V-I-I chord progression gives you a great workout on all the classic bluegrass chord changes. That’s all you have to remember, as it just repeats over and over again throughout the whole song. Roll on, buddy.
“Nine Pound Hammer” lyrics and chords
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