I learned this song from at least three distinct sources: the first was, yet again, my favorite Cisco Houston LP, Cisco Houston Sings American Folk Songs; then I learned to play a guitar melody on the bass strings from tablature in The 12 String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly; and then my little sister got an autoharp and a book on how to play it, both of which I fairly quickly appropriated, and this was one of the first songs I learned from it, along with “Hard, Ain’t It Hard” and “Wildwood Flower.”
That repertoire suggests the author, Harry Taussig, associated the instrument with the Carter Family. At the time, I didn’t really know their music, except at second-, third-, and fourth-hand, and I associated the autoharp with Mike Seeger, who is still my favorite player on it — but oddly enough, the only sideman gig I’ve been called for in recent years is a Carter Family tribute band, the Wayworn Travelers, in which I play autoharp… and “John Hardy” is one of my featured numbers… though the Carters did not use the instrument on that particular song.
As for John Hardy, he was an actual person, and largely thanks to a researcher named John Garst, we now have a fair amount of information about him. He was executed on January 19, 1894, for the killing of a man named Thomas Drews, and the story was reported in that day’s Wheeling, West Virginia, Register:
Hardy killed Drews… in a disagreement over a game of craps. Both were enamored of the same woman, and the latter proving the more favored lover, incurred Hardy’s envy, who seized the pretext of falling out in the game to work vengeance on Drews, who had shown himself equally expert in dice as in love, having won money from Hardy. Hardy drew his pistol, remarking he would kill him unless he refunded the money. Drews paid back part of the money, when Hardy shot, killing him.
The execution was apparently a major event, with three thousand spectators attending, and Hardy’s scaffold oration in the song’s last verse is in keeping with the newspaper report, which says, “He exhibited great nerve, attributed his downfall to whiskey, and said he had made peace with God…. He was baptised in the river this morning.”