Our house is on the east side of Asheville, near the area known as Swannanoa. There’s a bluegrass song called “Swannanoa Tunnel” I like because it sounds like an aural transcription of the landscape around here: Winding, mountainous, gray-topped. I had thought the song was an instrumental but yesterday I came across a nice article, written by Lyle Lofgren and originally published in Inside Bluegrass, that contained lyrics for it. Lofgren notes that the song’s a variant on the work song “Nine Pound Hammer.” The Swannanoa iteration developed during the construction of the Swannanoa Tunnel, one of the railway tunnels that connected Asheville, then a raw scrap of city, to the rest of the country. Tunnel-digging was dangerous work. According to Lofgren, 300 men lost their lives during the project (another source places the number at 125).
As Lofgren recounts, the song was first transcribed by the Englishman Cecil Sharp and his protégé Maud Karpeles. But “[w]ithout a recording machine, they had to transcribe the words and tunes while people were singing them, and the North Carolina accents misled them badly on this song: ‘Tunnel’ became ‘town-o’ and ‘hoot owl’ was transcribed as ‘hoodow.'” (The two were also reportedly perplexed by the song’s oft-repeated chorus, “blinded by the light / wrapped up like a douche in the middle of the night.”)
Here are the lyrics:
I’m going back to that Swannanoa Tunnel,
That’s my home, baby, that’s my home.
Asheville Junction, Swannanoa Tunnel,
All caved in, baby, all caved in.
Last December, I remember,
The wind blowed cold, baby, the wind blowed cold.
When you hear my watchdog howling, somebody around,
When you hear that hoot owl squalling, somebody dying,
Hammer falling from my shoulder all day long,
Ain’t no hammer in this mountain outrings mine
This old hammer, it killed John Henry, it didn’t kill me,
Riley Gardner, he killed my partner, he couldn’t kill me,
Riley Rambler, he killed Jack Ambler, he didn’t kill me,
This old hammer rings like silver, shines like gold,
Take this hammer, throw it in the river,
It rings right on, baby, it shines right on.
Some of these days I’ll see that woman, well, that’s no dream.
The instrumental version of the song I know best is Martin Simpson’s, which is available on iTunes. Or you can listen to this version, different than Simpson’s, on YouTube.