"Big Bad John" is a country song originally performed by Jimmy Dean and composed by Dean and Roy Acuff. Released in September 1961, by the beginning of November it went to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and won Dean the 1962 Grammy Award for Best Country & Western Recording. The song and its sequels tell a story typical of American folklore, reminiscent of Paul Bunyan or John Henry. Big Bad John was also the title of a 1990 television movie starring Dean.
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 two forty-five"). He supposedly came from New Orleans, where he 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. Although the miners were about to reenter 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 at the time considered to be borderline profane language.)
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 "a hundred and ten grandchildren". The sequel's events are more exaggerated than the first, extending the story into the realm of tall tales.
In 1964, 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.
In the US, "Big Bad John" spent five weeks at number one on the pop chart, two weeks on the country chart, and ten weeks on the Easy Listening chart. It was also a number-two hit in the United Kingdom.
Dean's LP Big Bad John and Other Fabulous Songs and Tales, where the song first appeared, reached number twenty-three in the pop charts. The song was the B-side of "I Won't Go Huntin' with You Jake", but ended up becoming much more popular than the latter.
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Columbia Records was considering dropping Dean before the release of this million-selling single, as he hadn't had a hit in years. Dean wrote the song on a flight from New York to Nashville because he realized he needed a fourth song for his recording session.
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.)
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 is also used in the closing credits of the UK politics show This Week when having discussed the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow. It is used to humorous effect due to Bercow's short stature and deemed weak control in Parliament.