They Killed John Henry but They Won't Kill Me

by Andrew Gilstrap

5 August 2009

In these days of economic turmoil, massive job losses, and corporate profiteering, you'd expect to hear more rewritings of the John Henry legend.
Image (partial) found on Folklore Independent Journal - artist unknown 

Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods imagines a world in which the old gods and legends—the ones we learned about in our dog-eared copies of Hamilton’s Mythology or heard about at our grandfathers’ knees—have fallen on hard times. Egyptian deities Thoth and Anubis run a funeral home in Cairo, Illinois. Thor put a bullet in his brain back in the ‘30s, and Odin is little better than a grifter. As the gods of legend wane, they’re being replaced by new “gods” such as Media and the Technical Boy who receive far more worship than any of the gods who came over with immigrants.

cover art

American Gods

Neil Gaiman

US: May 2002

Surprisingly, American Gods didn’t drag John Henry into its cosmic shenanigans, but he would have fit right in, swinging his hammer up against someone’s head. A cowboy from the American southwest or a resident of logging country might disagree, but it seems like the legend of John Henry has the most staying power of any American legend or tall tale.

As the story goes, John Henry was born with a hammer in his hand, growing into a giant of his day at six feet tall and over 200 pounds. He drove spikes on the railroad line until one day the railroad owners brought in a steam drill to do the work cheaper and faster. John Henry defeated the steam drill in a contest, only to die on the spot from exhaustion with his hammer still in his hand.

John Henry may or may not have been a real person. He may have been an aggregate of all the best men working the rail lines back in those days. It’s possible such a contest really happened, although no one’s really sure. But his story has proven remarkably malleable, whether you want to use it to promote labor issues, discuss affairs of the heart, or make a point about the costs of technological advancement.

It’s especially common for John Henry to be referenced anytime a new technology rears its head—even in such unlikely places as a discussion of the Amazon Kindle (“John Henry was an Audio-Book Reading Man”), the satirical newspaper The Onion (“Modern-Day John Henry Dies Trying to Out-Spreadsheet Excel 11.0”), and an episode of Spongebob Squarepants (“Spongebob vs. the Patty Gadget”).

As a folk song, the original version of “John Henry” has been covered by everyone under the sun. It’s like the “Mustang Sally” of traditional folk music. Even Casey Jones comes in a distant second (and that’s counting decades’ worth of Grateful Dead bootlegs)—and it’s fair to say that Pete Seeger probably never called John Henry a “union scab” like he did Casey Jones. American composer Aaron Copland even gave “John Henry” an orchestral treatment.

John Henry’s story is so ubiquitous that even a passing reference to him can give a song an added wrinkle of depth, or at least act as shorthand for committed effort. Jimmie Skinner’s prison lament “Doing My Time” proclaims “You can hear my hammer / You can hear my song / I’m gonna swing it like John Henry all day long”. Jeffrey Foucault’s “Secretariat” muses, “I need a woman with hands like Joe Henry / Hard enough to break the rocks down at the cell”. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’ “Elvis Presley Blues” strikes a more pensive tone:

He was all alone in a long decline
Thinking how happy John Henry was that he fell down and died
When he shook it and he rang like silver
He shook it and he shine like gold
He shook it and he beat that steam drill, baby.

From rap to blues to country, a good John Henry reference always carries some lyrical weight.

Over the years, a few artists have ventured beyond the traditional folk tale and its variants to discover what John Henry’s story can offer them. Jason Isbell’s “The Day John Henry Died” (recorded while with the Drive-by Truckers) is one of the best recent examples, packing a lot of content into a little space. There’s not only the theme of cheap labor (“It didn’t matter if he won, if he lived, or if he’d run / They changed the way his job was done. Labor costs were high.”) but also of management’s attitudes towards the men working themselves into the grave (“John Henry was a steel-driving bastard but John Henry was a bastard just the same / An engine never thinks about his daddy and an engine never needs to write its name.”).

There’s also an apocalyptic ripple that nods toward the unreliable nature of legends (“The letters flew across the wire filtered through a million liars / The whole world smelled like burning tires the day John Henry died.”). A song like “The Day John Henry Died” maintains the traditional themes of technology and labor issues, but it also personalizes John Henry in a way that more overtly politicized retellings—in their quest to convey a strong message—sometimes fail to accomplish.

Tom T. Hall’s “More About John Henry” intertwines Henry’s legend with that of Stagger Lee, and proposes that John Henry retreated into nonstop work because of troubles with three separate women. Jason Molina uses John Henry’s legendary strength to paint a picture of devastated heartbreak in “John Henry Split My Heart”. Standing on the mythic “66 Highway”, Molina’s narrator sings, “John Henry split this heart / Split this full-moon heart ... Swing the heaviest hammer you got / Hit this one out of the park”. As the song builds to a crescendo of guitars and classic Molina imagery—full moons, will-of-the-wisps, big stars falling—the song’s earlier John Henry lines find themselves wrapped in a warm cloak of archetypal imagery.

So the story of John Henry continues to evolve along with the times—to some degree. Although maybe it’s not in relation to the times so much as it is in songwriters’ attempts to plumb the John Henry legend for their own personal ends. In these days of economic turmoil, massive job losses, and corporate profiteering, though, you’d expect to hear more rewritings of the John Henry legend. One of the most recent reworkings comes courtesy of bluesman Joe Bonamassa, whose “Ballad of John Henry” carries the same defiant tone as Justin Townes Earle does in his equally recent “They Killed John Henry”: “they killed John Henry but they won’t kill me”.

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