Saturday, September 1, 2012

Long John (Lost John) - Sound Files & Lyrics

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post showcases two versions of the African American prison work song "Long John" (Lost John).

The content of this post is presented for folkloric and aesthetic purposes.

(These two examples are presented in chronological order from the date of their collection & recording.)

Example #1: Lightning- Long John (Old song by a chain gang)

Uploaded by abanks47 on Jun 20, 2009
Lyrics - Long John
(Lightning version)

The Lomaxes also collected a chopping work song from Lightnin' in a Texas prison farm.... The lines in square brackets are by the chorus:


Wid his di'mond blade [Wid his di'mond blade]
Got it in his han' [Got it in his han']
Gonna hew out de live oaks [Gonna hew out de live oaks]
Dat are in dis lan' [Dat are in dis lan']


He's long gone [He's long gone]
He's Long John [He's long John]
He's gone, gone [He's gone, gone]
Like a turkey throught the corn [Like a turkey through the corn]
Wid his long clo'es on [Wid his long clo'es on]
He's gone, gone [He's gone, gone]
He's gone John [He's gone John]
He's long gone [He's long gone]


Ef I had a-listened
What Rosie said
I'd a-been sleepin'
In a-Rosie's bed

But-a I wouldn' listen
Got to runnin' aroun'
An' de firs' thing I knew
I was jailhouse bound

Well, I got in de jail
Wid my mouf poked out
Now I'm in the pen
An I cain' get out

Well-a John made
A pair of shoes
Funnies' shoes
Dat ever was seen

Had a heel in front
An' a heel behind
Well, you couldn tell where
Dat boy was a-gwine

Well-a, come on, honey
Let me shet dat do'
Well de dogs is a-comin'
An' I got to go

Well-a, hear dat sergeant
Just a-huffin' and a-blowin'
Well, I b'lieve I hear
Ol' Rattler moanin'

Well, I crossed that Brazos
In de mornin' dew
Well, I leave you, sergeant
An de' captain too

Well-a, good mornin', Mary
How do you do?
Well I crossed dat river
Jus' to see you

All dis summer
Won' call no mo'
Ef I call nex' summer
Den I'm gone some mo'

He's long gone
He's Long John
He's gone, gone
Like a turkey through de corn

Wid his long clo'es on
He's gone, gone
He's gone John
He's long gone

Source: John A. Lomax & Alan Lomax 'American Ballads and Folk Songs' MacMillan 1934 pp 75-79.

Retrieved from a comment posted by Stewie, December 14, 2002 [hereafter given as Mudcat: Long John/Lost John]

Example #2: Lost John

Uploaded by spaceauditty on Dec 2, 2011

V/A - Negro Prison Camp Worksongs

Recorded by Pete & Toshi Seeger in the winter of 1951 at two Texas prison farms, this album represents some of the oldest and most traditional work songs found among African American prison communities in the southern United States. Traditionally a participatory art form, these songs were typically sung while groups of 10-30 prisoners performed tasks such as chopping and hoeing. With origins reaching back to their West African ancestry as well as during the era of African American slavery, work songs served the purpose of alleviating the mundane nature of repetitive tasks as well as providing a forum for the song leader to keep the group together through rhythms and lyrics. 10 songs, 40 minutes, with liner notes featuring an introduction by Pete Seeger and song lyrics.

Year of Recording 1956
Record Label Folkways Records
Lyrics: Long John
(Courlander version)

One day, one day,
I were walking along
And I heard a little voice
Didn't see no one.
It was old Lost John,
He said he was long gone
Like a turkey through the corn
With his long clothes on.
Had a heel in front
And a heel behind,
Well you couldn't hardly tell
Well you couldn't hardly tell
Whichaway he was goin'
Whichaway he was goin'.
One day, one day,
Well I heard him say
Be on my way
Be on my way
'Fore the break of day
By the break of day.
Got a heel in front,
Got a heel behind,
Well you can hardly tell
Well you can hardly tell
Whichaway I'm goin'.

Oughta come on the river,
Long time ago,
You could find a dead man
Right on your row.
Well the dog man killed him
Well the dog man killed him
'Cause the boy couldn't go
'Cause the boy couldn't go.
Wake up dead man,
Help me carry my row,
'Cause the row's so heavy
Can't hardly make it
To the lower turn row.
Oughta come on the river
Nineteen and ten,
Well the womenwas rolling
Just like the men.

Oughta come on the river
Long time ago,
I don't know partner,
Say, you outhta know,
You'd catch plenty trouble
Everywhere you go
Everywhere you go.
One day, one day,
Heard the captain say
If you boys work
Gonna treat you mighty well,
If you don't go to work,
Says we may give you hell.

One day, one day,
I'll be on my way
And you may not never
Ever hear me say
One day, one day,
I'll be on my way.

From Negro Prison Songs, Alan Lomax, Tradition Records; Negro Prison Camp Work Songs; "and various Library of Congress record issues."
Seems to be a compilation of several versions. From Harold Courlander, Negro Folk Music, U. S. A., pp. 101-103.

Like "Lost John" from Odum and Johnson, 1925 (posted previously in this thread), the story line is very simple, lacking the embellishments in versions published and recorded later by Lomax (and perhaps 'engineered' by him.

We stil do not have the texts of the early recordings by Sims or Rutherford, about 1925-1926. I would guess that they either are simple in story line, like these, or a variant on the Handy Blues of 1926.

Retrieved from a comment posted by Guest Q, 14 Dec, 14, 2003, Mudcat: Long John/Lost John
"If I remember correctly, Peter Stampfell of the Holy Modal Rounders claimed that the "heel in front, toe behind" line was based on a true story of a prisoner who had actually made himself such a pair of shoes in the prison shoe shop, which he had intended to wear during an escape attempt."
-beeliner, Mudcat: Long John/Lost John, September 1, 2012
Editor's note: Additional text versions of & comments about the song "Long John"/"Lost John" can be found on that Mudcat post.

Thanks to the unknown composers of these songs, to those who sung this song, and the song collectors. Thanks also to those Mudcat Discussion Forum posters whose transcriptions and comments I quoted in this post and to those who uploaded these featured sound files.

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Viewer comments are welcome.


  1. I just have hit your blog and I'm pretty glad to know about amazing texts. I am a african brazilian 36-years-old man that is trying to figure out as many information as is possible about black people.

    Thank you for share it.

    Best regards,

    1. Greetings, Marcus Ferreira and thanks for your comment.

      Please feel free to suggest music, dance, and other topic from Brazil that could be featured on this blog.