Sunday, November 11, 2012

Mythology and Folklore: The Day John Henry Died

[purchase the Drive-By Truckers’ version with Jason Isbell on lead]
[purchase Jason Isbell’s live album being released on November 19, 2012, even though this song isn’t on it]

The story of John Henry is probably one of the most popular American folktales, and it has been the subject of many books and songs. I have 41 John Henry related songs on my iPod, and that just scratches the surface (and some of the recordings also are old enough that they have scratched surfaces). One of my kids’ favorite books when they were younger was a version of the story by Julius Lester and illustrated by one of the best, Westchester resident Jerry Pinkney, which everyone with children should own. [purchase]

In short, the story tells of an African-American “steel-driving” man who defeats a steam drill in a contest to dig a railroad tunnel. He beats the machine, but dies from his exertion. For way more background on the story, including a discussion of its factual basis, check out this website created by four grad students at the University of North Carolina: [John Henry The Steel Driving Man]

The issues raised by this song—the effects of industrialization on human workers—have been struggled over by humanity for a very long time. The Luddites of the 19th century gave a name to the view that technology was generally negative, and the labor movement has also agonized over the balance between allowing technology to advance and the fact that it often puts workers out of work. I recently engaged in a debate on Facebook about whether the self-scanners at our new Stop & Shop were good or bad because they put cashiers out of work, on one hand, but created jobs for security workers and manufacturers, installers and maintenance workers for the new machines. I don’t know, and I doubt there can ever be an “answer.”

Jason Isbell’s song, “The Day John Henry Died,” is an updated version that was originally recorded when he was still with the Drive-By Truckers. Although it gives an outline of the tale, it isn’t a direct narrative like so many of the versions I have heard. And at the end, there is a reference to sleeping on an airplane, which seems to indicate that Isbell thinks that the issues raised by the John Henry story continue to exist today. In his commentary on the Truckers’ website, he notes that he “was always intrigued by the fact that John beat the steam engine, but didn't live to enjoy his victory.” And in the live version in the video posted above, he says that the song is about “winnin’ the battle but losing the war.”

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