Big Bad John
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"Big Bad John" is a country song originally performed by Jimmy Dean, who wrote and composed it in collaboration with Roy Acuff. It was released in September 1961 and by the beginning of November it had gone to number one on the Billboard Hot 100. It won Dean the 1962 Grammy Award for Best Country & Western Recording, and was nominated for the Grammy Award for Song of the Year.
|"Big Bad John"|
|Single by Jimmy Dean|
|from the album Big Bad John and Other Fabulous Songs and Tales|
|B-side||"I Won't Go Huntin' With You Jake"|
|Recorded||August 18, 1961|
|Songwriter(s)||Roy Acuff and Jimmy Dean|
|Jimmy Dean singles chronology|
The song tells the story of a mysterious and quiet miner who earned the nickname Big John because of his height, weight, and muscular physique. ("He stood six foot six and weighed 245".) He supposedly came from New Orleans, where, with "a crashin' blow from a huge right hand", he allegedly killed a man over a Cajun Queen.
One day, a support timber cracked at the mine where John worked. The situation looked hopeless until John "grabbed a saggin' timber, gave out with a groan / and like a giant oak tree just stood there alone", then "gave a mighty shove", opening a passage and allowing the 20 other miners to escape the mine. Just as the other miners were about to re-enter the mine with the tools necessary to save him, the mine fully collapsed and John was believed to have died in the depths of the mine. The mine itself was never reopened, but a marble stand was placed in front of it, with the words "At the bottom of this mine lies one hell of a man – Big John." (Some versions of the song change the last line to "lies a big, big man" to replace what was considered profane language.)
In October 1961, Dottie West recorded a sequel to the song called "My Big John". This song was told from the point of view of the "Cajun Queen" that drove John away – her search for him, then discovering about his death.
Its 1962 sequel, "The Cajun Queen", describes the arrival of "Queenie", Big John's Cajun Queen, who rescues John from the mine and marries him. Eventually, they have "110 grandchildren". The sequel's events are more exaggerated than the first, extending the story into the realm of tall tales.
The song received a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year, while Dean's performance of the song earned him a nomination for Best Male Solo Vocal Performance, and Dean won Grammy Award for Best Country & Western Recording.
Dean's LP Big Bad John and Other Fabulous Songs and Tales, where the song first appeared, reached number 23 in the pop charts. The song was the B-side of "I Won't Go Huntin' with You Jake", but it ended up becoming much more popular than the latter.
The song frequently ranks as one of the best country songs of the 1960s, and all time.
The song was translated into Hebrew by Israeli lyricist Ehud Manor, under the title "John Biryon" (lit. "Strongman John"), as part of the 1982 Israeli television show "Red River Valley" dedicated to Manor's translations of famous country songs. Performed by Israeli singer and radio personality Dory Ben Ze'ev, it became a hit in Israel.
Columbia Records was considering dropping Dean before the release of this million-selling single, as he had not had a hit in years. Dean wrote the beginnings of the song on a flight from New York to Nashville because he realized he needed a fourth song for his recording session. Roy Acuff later helped him polish it.
The inspiration for the character of Big John was an actor, John Minto, that Dean met in a summer stock play, Destry Rides Again, who was 6'5". Dean would call him "Big John" and grew to like the rolling sound of the phrase.
Country pianist Floyd Cramer, who was hired to play piano on the song, came up with the idea to use a hammer and a piece of steel instead. This became a distinctive characteristic of the recording.
There are several known recordings of the song by Dean. Notably, there are two different versions of the inscription on the marble stand in front of the mine. The original, "At the bottom of this mine lies one hell of a man--Big John", was deemed too controversial, so in the version that was most often heard on the radio, one could hear "At the bottom of this mine lies a big, big man--Big John" instead. (However, a verse earlier in the song, "Through the smoke and the dust of this man-made hell..." remains intact in both versions, with no apparent controversy.)
There were multiple contemporary parodies of "Big Bad John". Cleveland DJ Phil McLean, had a minor hit about a cowardly character, "Small Sad Sam", which was released in December 1961. Country Yossi, an Orthodox Jewish composer and singer, parodied the song as "Big Bad Moish" on one of his children's albums. There were several gay-themed parodies of the song, such as Steve Greenberg's "Big Bruce", and Ben Colder 's "Big Sweet John".
A French language translation of the song was made in Quebec Canada and named "Gros Jambon"(Big Ham). It was done as a one-time novelty act by TV show host Réal Giguère but it caught the public's attention and was afterwards recorded by popular demand, selling over 300,000 copies.
Political candidates have run ads that parody Big Bad John, retaining the music while substituting lyrics that support their particular political bids.
In Texas Senator John Cornyn's 2008 parody, he presented himself as a maverick politician, seeking a return to the Senate to fight to set things right. "You see I'm from Texas and we do things quick / And the way this place [the Senate] is run is about to make me sick", the ad states. Several ads were released by Democrats refuting some of the claims made in the song.
In the same year, the Democratic National Committee parodied the song in an ad that targeted presidential candidate John McCain. The ad dubbed McCain "Exxon John", while highlighting $2 million in contributions by Exxon-Mobil to McCain's campaign, as well as the supposed role of Big Oil lobbyists in his campaign.
The song was also used in the closing credits of the UK politics show This Week, whenever the show discussed the former Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow. It was used to humorous effect due to Bercow's short stature and perceived weak control in Parliament.
- Flavour of New Zealand, 16 November 1961
- Whitburn, Joel (2004). The Billboard Book Of Top 40 Country Hits: 1944-2006, Second edition. Record Research. p. 102.
- Whitburn, Joel (2002). Top Adult Contemporary: 1961-2001. Record Research. p. 74.
- Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. p. 146. ISBN 1-904994-10-5.
- "Billboard Hot 100 60th Anniversary Interactive Chart". Billboard. Retrieved 10 December 2018.
- "A Country Music Legend Passes", Texas Hot Country, July 2010
- Israel, Steve (23 July 2000). "Weekly radio show's hotter than a jalapeno gefilte fish". The Times Herald-Record. Retrieved 12 October 2014.
- Video on YouTube
- Video on YouTube