Sun and Moon / Summer and Winter

The Meaning of the John Henry Story

Steel Driving Kitten
my kitten Henry (is not a steel-drivin' man)

I first heard the John Henry story from the public schools, I guess, or maybe from my family, some of whom were involved in the Scouts. And I'd gotten a very specific impression of what the story meant.

But once I grew up and started listening to the music of the 1920's, I found very little support there for the interpretation I'd grown up with. I had always thought it was a story of Man against Machine, where human virtues like bravery, nobility, vulnerability, and the work ethic did battle against technology and heartless Progress.

But that's not quite what I hear on the old records. Take the version Mississippi John Hurt recorded on December 28, 1928, on that same Christmas trip to New York when he recorded "Avalon Blues." It's called "Spike Driver Blues":
Take this hammer and carry it to my captain
Tell him I'm gone
Just tell him I'm gone
"I'm sure he's gone"

This is the hammer that killed John Henry
But it won't kill me
But it won't kill me
Ain't gunna kill me

John Henry was a steal driving boy
But he went down
But he went down
That's why I'm gone
Hurt's delivery isn't comic, it seems to me, but sweet, sincere, and thoughtful. There's no mention of any steam drill at all, just a killer hammer which the singer renounces.

J. E. Mainer and his Mountaineers did a version on June 15, 1936 in which the young John Henry issues a prophesy:
John Henry was a little boy
Lord, he sat on his pappa's knee
He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel
Said this hammer'll be the death of me
This hammer be the death of me
This version does mention the contest with the steam drill, but as always, it's the hammer that's the cause of John Henry's death.

When I first started listening to the old recordings, the biggest surprise about the message of John Henry was that there didn't seem to be much of a message at all — folk music, it turned out, isn't nearly as preachy as Folk Music. Stranger still was that insofar as there was a message, it seemed to be that hard manual labor just plain sucks and should be avoided.

The story of John Henry seems to have taken hold around, maybe, 1910 or so, and everybody seems to agree that Henry was a black man. So originally the story was, partly, a complaint against working conditions for African Americans during Reconstruction.

But when I encountered it in the post-WWII suburbs, the story was being made to reflect the conflicts and concerns of that time and place. It seemed to assure us of the dignity of hard work. At the same time, it seemed to reflect our middle-class anxieties over the idea of technology rendering our jobs obsolete. Maybe today John Henry would be in a steel-driving race with 30 tech workers from Bangladesh.

There's a lot of good information on the John Henry story. Check out Norm Cohen's Long Steel Rail for more on John Henry (I keep intending to do so myself). I recently discovered Brett Williams' interesting John Henry: A Bio-Bibliography at a used bookstore. And Harry Smith's anthologies of folk music (the original Volumes 1 though 3 from Folkways and now Volume 4 from Revenant) are crammed to the gills with songs about hammers.