Sunday, April 9, 2017

Battle of Man and Machine


Recently, there has been a focus on an American labor force that has been displaced. The Conservative Right has successfully blamed migrant workers and overseas outsourcing. But realistically, the jobs do not exist anymore for manual laborers, they have been steadily replaced by automation. Technology has replaced good old fashioned man power.

Folklore sometimes uses fables to illustrate actual struggles within society. The story of John Henry has been used for decades by labor and civil rights movements, but it best highlights the changes presented during the Industrial Revolution and the losing battle against technological innovation. Industrial and technological advances have drastically changed economies, and this particular song echoes themes and issues still at the heart of our society.

Not only is the story of John Henry a fable for displacement of labor at the hands of technological advancement, but it is also a story of equality. Of all the American folk stories of the last 200 years, John Henry is one of a few that feature a hero of color, and probably the only one easily recognized by most of the public. John Henry is a black man. Not only is he a black man, but presumably a free black man, and a symbol of a hard working man in pre civil rights America.

The story of John Henry has been translated to song many times in a few different ways, but essentially the story is the same, and ends in tragedy. The many musicians to record songs about the American folk hero include Pete Seeger, Ramblin Jack Elliot, Mississippi John Hurt, Harry Belafonte, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Johnny Cash, Van Morrison, and Bruce Springsteen.

The lyrics seem to be pretty standard, although I can't find evidence of a credible writing credit. Songs usually share 3 parts, young John Henry foreshadowing his fate, the race against the machine, and John Henry's wife taking up where his legacy left off. I've included the lyrics to Woody Guthrie's version below.

John Henry, when he was a baby
Settin' on his mammy's knee
Picked up an hammer in his little right hand
Said, "Hammer be the death of me, me, me
Hammer be the death of me"

Some say he's born in Texas
Some say he's born up in Maine
I just say he was a Louisiana man
Leader of a steel-driving chain gang
Leader on a steel-driving gang
Well, the Captain said to John Henry
"I'm gonna bring my steam drill around
Gonna bring my steam drill out on the job
Gonna whup that steel on down, down, down
Whup that steel on down"

John Henry said to the Captain
(What he say?)
"You can bring your steam drill around
You can bring your steam drill out on the job
I'll beat your steam drill down, down, down
Beat your steam drill down"
John Henry said to his Shaker
"Shaker, you had better pray
If you miss your six feet of steel
I'll be your buryin' day, day, day
I'll be your buryin' day"

Now, the Shaker said to John Henry
(Yes sir)
"Man ain't nothing but a man
(No he ain't)
But before I'd let that steam drill beat me down
(I believe him)
I'd die with an hammer in my hand, hand, hand
(I believe him)
I'd die with an hammer in my hand"

John Henry had a little woman
Her name was Polly Anne
John Henry took sick and was laid up in bed
While Polly handled steel like a man, man, man
Polly handled steel like a man
They took John Henry to the graveyard
Laid him down in the sand
Every locomotive comin' a-rolling by
Hollered, there lies a steel-drivin' man, man, man
There lies a steel-drivin' man
There lies a steel-drivin' man, man, man
There lies a steel-drivin' man

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