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 Pete Seeger's version below.

John Henry was about three days old,
sittin' on his papa's knee.
He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel;
said, "Hammer's gonna be the death of me, Lord, Lord.
Hammer's gonna be the death of me."
The captain said to John Henry
"Gonna bring that steam drill 'round.
Gonna bring that steam drill out on the job.
Gonna whop that steel on down. Down,
Whop that steel on down."
John Henry told his captain,
"A man ain't nothin' but a man,
But before I let your steam drill beat me
I'd die with a hammer in my hand. Lord,
I'd dies with a hammer in my hand."
John Henry said to his shaker,
"Shaker, why don't you sing?
I'm throwin' thirty pounds from my hips on
Just listen to that cold steel ring. Lord, Lord.
Listen to that cold steel ring."
The man that invented the stream drill
Thought he was mighty fine,
But John Henry made fifteen feet;
The steam drill only made nine. Lord, Lord.
The steam drill only made nine.
John Henry hammered in the mountain
His hammer was striking fire.
But he worked so hard, he broke his poor
He laid down his hammer and he died. Lord,
He laid down his hammer and he died.
John Henry had a little woman.
Her name was Polly Ann.
John Henry took sick and went to his bed.
Polly Ann drove steel like a man. Lord,
Polly Ann drove steel like a man.
John Henry had a little baby.
You could hold him in the palm of your
The last words I heard that poor boy say,
"My daddy was steel-driving man. Lord,
My daddy was a steel-driving."
Well, every Monday morning
When the bluebirds begin to sing.
You can hear John Henry a mile or more.
You can hear John Henry's hammer ring.
Lord, Lord.
You can hear John Henry's hammer ring.

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