Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee: John Henry
“Post songs that ring like steel.” As soon as I read that description of our new theme, I knew what my first selection would be. John Henry, and specifically this version, is a favorite from one of the first albums I ever bought for myself. As the youngest of three brothers, I was used to hand-me-downs, and that even included music to some extent. I got albums for my nascent collection that one or the other of my brothers had gotten tired of, and I also set about replacing music that was no longer available to me when my oldest brother moved out to go to college. But it was with albums like this from Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee that I began to define my collection as mine, as an extension and definition of me. It represented the beginning of my exploration of both folk and blues music.
The song is also a good starter for our new theme, in that it pits man against machine. Steel does not occur in nature. It is an alloy of iron and carbon, with other elements added in different proportions to make different types of steel. So steel itself is an early triumph of human technology, but the song John Henry reminds us that technological advances can have a human cost. In the song, John Henry is a steel driver. That is how he defines himself, and he takes great pride in his work. But now there is a machine, the steam drill, that can supposedly do the job better than him. The song tells of how John Henry set out to prove that he was better than any machine, and what it cost him.
A steel driver had the job of hammering steel drills into a rock face. The resulting holes would then be dynamited to make tunnels through mountains. This was an essential job during the building of the railroads in the nineteenth century. There are many claims that John Henry was a real person, and there are historical markers in several different locations that claim to be the site of the contest in the song. What is clear is that the technological change depicted in the song would place the action of the song somewhere in the 1870s. Whether or not the action of the song actually took place at all, the song and the legend are one of the finest expressions we have of human pride in the face of technological change, and that is a theme that still resonates, or rings, today.