The singer tells a (fellow prisoner?) to take his hammer to the captain; the singer is running away. The hammer (which killed John Henry) will never kill him. The versions show considerable variations
The connection between this song and "Swannanoa Tunnel" is very strong; there are so many intermediate versions that we can hardly draw a clear distinction. But the extreme versions are sufficiently different that I have listed them separately. - RBW
Paul Stamler suggests that "Take This Hammer" and "Nine Pound Hammer" can be distinguished by the chorus (found in the latter) "Roll on buddy/Don't you roll so slow/How can I roll/When the wheels won't go."
Paul adds, ""According to the liner notes on LC61, the cited 78s (by Charlie Bowman and Al Hopkins) are the first recorded under the names 'Roll On, Buddy' and 'Nine Pound Hammer,' indicating the variant existed when these records were published. The Aunt Molly Jackson field recording dates from 1939. So I think we've established the variant's presence in tradition as early as the late 1920s. I think it's time to split 'em, with cross-referencing notes."
He's probably right. Sadly, we now have four references I can no longer check. So they remain lumped until I can find a way to get those books back. - RBW
Unfortunately, the liner notes to LC61 misled me. While it's true that the title "Roll On, Buddy" was first used by Charlie Bowman & his Brothers, his recording (placed here in earlier versions of the Index) wasn't this song. Instead, it was the one we have indexed as "Roll On, Buddy (II) [Roll On, Buddy, Roll On]." Sorry.
We can go further: Archie Green interviewed Charlie Bowman of Al Hopkins & his Buckle Busters, who stated that he and Al Hopkins had put together the "Roll On Buddy" variant from traditional fragments during their 1927 recording session, and the song was in fact copyrighted in their name. Bowman stated that he'd learned many of the fragments from African-American railroad workers in 1903-1905. - PJS
Norm Cohen has an extensive discussion, based on Archie Green's examination in _Only a Miner_. They note two basic elements: The "Take this hammer" stanzas, in non-rhyming couplets, and the "roll on buddy" verses, which do rhyme. They therefore suspect that Hopkins was the source of the combination. The problem is simply too great to fully explicate here; I can only recommend the discussions in Green and Cohen. - RBW
I place Robeson's "Water Boy" here for want of a better place. It contains several floating verses from this song (e.g., "There ain't no hammer that's on this mountain/That rings like mine..."). - PJS