#1206: 9 LB. Hammer by Sanford Clark
Sanford Clark was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1935. In his early childhood his family moved to Phoenix. Sanford got his first guitar when he was 12 years old. He played around Phoenix until 1953, then he was enlisted at the age of 18 into the U.S. Air Force for four years. He then moved to Johnston Island in the Pacific where he played music when he was off-duty. The Air Force assigned back home in Phoenix where returned to playing clubs again. Local guitar player, Al Casey, had been a friend of Sanford Clark’s since school days told local disc jockey Lee Hazlewood to go listen to Sanford. Hazlewood was impressed with Sanford’s voice. He was looking for somebody to record a song he had just written. About a week later he took Sanford into Floyd Ramsey’s studio with Al Casey and recorded “The Fool”. Hazlewood gave his wife, Naomi Ford, the songwriting credit for “The Fool.” At the time it was not allowed for a producer or manager to also be a writer of the songs that were being recorded in the studio. Sanford stated that he felt they were a mix between Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley and just trying to get something a little different with there sound. People often wonder how the “drum sound” was made on the recording. They found a piece of split bamboo and beat it on the guitar case, then Casey insisted that the drummer use a drumstick.
Initially, nothing happened with the song. After the session, Sanford went back to the Air Force only for a short stay, he got an early discharge. Then he got a job delivering Canada Dry soft drinks around Phoenix. It was at that time that things started to happen with the record. Up to that point the record was on a local label MCI, and a disc jockey had sent the single to Randy Wood at Dot Records. It was at that point that Sanford signed with Dot. Dot re-released “The Fool” that summer, August “The Fool” climbed to #7 on the Billboard charts in the USA and #3 in Vancouver.
Following the song’s success, Clark opened on tour for Ray Price and Roy Orbison. Clark’s follow-up single, “A Cheat”, gave him a minor hit, peaking at #74 on the Billboard pop charts. Clark recalled later in an interview, “by the time it came out, Elvis so dominated the charts, it was hard for anyone to get a hit on to the charts. The deejay’s were getting so many requests for more and more Elvis.” Though that follow-up single didn’t chart in Vancouver, Clark’s third single release, “9 LB. Hammer” did.
“Nine Pound Hammer” or “9 LB. Hammer” is a traditional Appalachian folk song from Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. It dates back to the 1870’s and verses were adapted into the 20th C. The song was popularized after World War II by country and western singer Merle Travis in his 1947 box set of 78 RPM recording Folk Songs of The Hills. Along with the traditional folk songs, Travis wrote several other working songs including “Sixteen Tons” and “John Henry”. “Nine Pound Hammer” was one of a group of “hammer songs” or “roll songs” (after a group of wheelbarrow-hauling songs).
“9 LB. Hammer” by Sanford Clark tells the story of a coal miner who carries a hammer that is too heavy for him to keep hammering all during his coal mining shift. The wheelbarrow is also too heavy when it is loaded up with coal, and he can’t pull it when the wheels don’t roll. In the traditional lyrics, the song tells of a man named John Henry who was killed by a nine pound hammer. But, in Sanford Clark’s version, that verse is omitted. In addition, the original lyrics recall the mine is a long way to the towns of Harlan and Hazard, places a coal miner could get some beer. Hazard, Kentucky, is a coal mining town in the eastern part of the state. In 1964, folk singer, Tom Paxton, wrote a song about a coal mining strike titled “High Sheriff of Hazard.” Harlan, Kentucky, was the largest community in Harlan County where a series of coal miners strikes took place between 1931 and 1939. Sheriff, J. H. Blair, was immortalized in the folk protest song, “Which Side Are You On?, written by Florence Reece in 1931. The strikes in Harlan County in the 1930’s are referred to as the Harlan County War.
For almost a hundred years after the abolition of slavery, convicts, mostly African American, were leased to work as forced labor in the mines, railroad camps, brickyards, turpentine farms, and then on road gangs of the American South. Forced labor on chain gangs, levees, and huge, plantation-like prison farms continued well into the twentieth century. (Under the current iteration of the prison industry in America in the 21st Century with 2.5 million prisoners and 6 million African-American men either in prison or on parole, prisoners continue to provide free labor). It was not unusual for work songs like “Nine Pound Hammer” to drift between occupations along with the itinerant laborers who sang them. Verses from “Take This Hammer,” “Nine Pound Hammer” and the ballad of “John Henry” date back to the post-Civil War era around 1870, according to Dorothy Scarborough in her book published in 1925 called On The Trail of Negro Folk-Songs. “Nine Pound Hammer” was first recorded in 1927 by Al Hopkins and his Buckle Busters, known by their nickname The Hill Billies. The song was recorded by Bluegrass pioneers, The Monroe Brothers, in 1936. Their version of “Nine Pound Hammer” is one of several melodies set to the lyrics.
So the song Sanford Clark is singing is not about getting away in a car with wheels and asking the driver to put their peddle to the metal. The wheels that the singer wants to keep rolling are the wheels of a wheelbarrow. A nine pound hammer would be quite a weight to keep hammering away with deep down in a mine shaft all day long, especially for someone who wasn’t a big person. No wonder the singer wants to escape the drudgery and the danger of working in a coal mine, preferring the company of his gal who lives up in the mountains. The song peaked at #33 in Milwaukee and #5 in Vancouver in February 1957.
“Nine Pound Hammer” has been recorded by many recording artists including John Prine, Johnny Cash, Lonnie Donegan, Mark Selby, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Odetta, Spencer Davis Group, Cat Stevens and Taj Mahal.
Sanford Clark’s fourth single release was “Love Charms“, featuring Duane Eddy on guitar. The tune was not a hit in America, but it spent one brief week at #9 in Vancouver in June ’57. His next release was “Swanee River Rock”, reflecting a departure from his signature rockabilly sound. In November of 1957 he recorded “The Man Who Made An Angel Cry” a great Johnny Cash sound-a-like recording. He and Dot Records’ owner Randy Wood quarreled over the singer’s image, and he eventually signed to Jamie Records in 1958, continuing to work with Hazlewood. His first release with Jamie Records, “Still As The Night“, had a more familiar sound and climbed into the Top 20 in Miami and Pittsburgh. Duane Eddy had played guitar on the single, though now with his instrumental tune, “Rebel Rouser”, Eddy began to go on tour. Sanford Clark’s longtime friend, Al Casey, joined Duane Eddy’s band.
Clark continued to release singles, including “Modern Romance” and a cover of the 1954 #1 R&B hit by Johnny Ace, “Pledging My Love”. However, Clark was having no more success with Jamie Records then with Dot. When Sanford left Jamie Records he did one single for the 3-Trey label and another for the tiny Project Records. Neither record met with any success. Sanford became friendly with local sideman and struggling songwriter named Roger Miller. Roger asked Sanford to record a song called “Dang Me”. However, Sanford Clark declined. Roger Miller decided to record it himself and it launched Miller as one of the biggest Country-pop singers of the 1960’s. Sanford tried again, this time at Warner Brothers Records in 1964 and 1965. He nearly had a hit with the Lee Hazlewood composition “Houston“. Sanford recorded it, but Hazlewood produced another version of the same song with Dean Martin. Sanford said his version was doing fine, until they released Dean Martin’s version. Then radio stations dropped Clark’s version, preferring to spin Dean Martin’s disc. After two more unsuccessful contracts with Warner Brothers Records and then LHI Records, Sanford Clark quit recording in the late 60’s, after releasing 21 singles and several albums.
By the 1970’s Sanford Clark was only playing music on occasion. He made his living by labour and skill. One was construction, a trade he had pursued on and off since the 1950s. As a skilled blackjack player, Sanford Clark has made his other sideline gambling. With both talents he has made himself a comfortable living. In 2017 Sanford Clark lives in Louisiana with his wife of many years, Marsha.
June 25, 2017
Sanford Clark bio, Rockabilly Hall of Fame
Ed Masley, “How Phoenix Rocker Sanford Clark Shaped Keith Richards,” The Republic, September 8, 2015
Garth Cartwright, “Lee Hazelwood Obituary,” Guardian, August 6, 2007.
Scarborough, Dorothy. On The Trail of Negro Folk-Songs. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1925.
Bob Woods, “This Kentucky Coal town Fighting to survive After Coal Mining Closings,” CNBC, March 29, 2018.
Harlan County War, Wikipedia.org.
Chris Hedges, “Chris Hedges and Activist Larry Hamm Discuss the Plight of Black America,” Truthdig.com, New York, June 6, 2017.
For more song reviews visit the Countdown.