They Killed John Henry but They Won't Kill Me

Image (partial) found on Folklore Independent Journal - artist unknown

In these days of economic turmoil, massive job losses, and corporate profiteering, you'd expect to hear more rewritings of the John Henry legend.

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.

Book: American Gods

Author: Neil Gaiman

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication date: 2002-05

Length: 624 pages

Format: Paperback

Image:, 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".


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.