The ballad of John Henry came up the other night. We dated it to the late 1800's since it involves railroads, but it seems to be more freighted than that (sorry). It's not a railroad song the way Casey Jones is, though it relates to the building of the railroads. It's not really a work song, either, though it bears some similarity to Take This Hammer (both songs sung by Lead Belly). TTH would have been sung while actually swinging a hammer, with an appropriate exclamation for each strike, even as the singer dreams of walking away from the job. John Henry is more of a story song, and a complex one at that. Man versus machine is the main theme, and man wins, but kills himself in the process. Seems like a theme that would appear earlier in the Industrial Revolution, but I'm not coming up with any examples off hand. Anybody know any tales of weavers outpacing the new mills, or suchlike? Beyond that, there are racial and sexual angles that have sometimes been bowdlerized. This page goes over some of the ground. Apparently there's some basis in fact, and the West Virginia tunnel in question is certainly real, but the truth gets harder to discern over time (oh wait, that's a work of fiction?). Although JH is almost always assumed to be a black man, the song seems to have had more resonance in the 30s than the 60s. Perhaps his noble victory in defeat was more appealing to the labor unionizers than to the civil rights movement?
- alex 4-29-2002 10:44 pm

add a comment to this page:

Your post will be captioned "posted by anonymous,"
or you may enter a guest username below:

Line breaks work. HTML tags will be stripped.