Thursday, March 17, 2016

Why "John Henry" is Still Important

Do you recognize the name John Henry? I do. I remember his story from when I was younger. I knew he was a black man who worked on the railroad driving spikes, and he died proving that he could beat a machine at his job. I haven't heard him mentioned on the news recently, but I have listened to his story many times over the past few months, and if you haven't, you should. Here's a good clip of Bruce performing it after he recorded it for the Seeger sessions.

This song is an artful lecture on traditional American values, and it belongs in the current political debate now more than ever. Here's why. Fate, human dignity, capitalism, feminism - all discussed in this song. John Henry, the baby who claims "This Hammer's gonna be the death of me" isn't any different from Joe the Plumber. We identify him not by his family, or where he comes from, but by his profession as a hammer-swinger.  If there is a villain, it is the nameless captain who brings a steam drill to do a man's job. John Henry deals with the questions that arise when profit comes before respecting each human and their role in society. Fortunately, American society has long determined that protecting workers' rights over the right of large companies to cut costs is the correct thing to ... wait, we haven't? Ok, then this song is still relevent.

There are countless versions of this song floating through America; some emphasize different aspects of the story, but the arc is the same. Burl Ives has some wonderful records of this song, as does Woody Guthrie, among others.All of them center on the work ethic, grit and strong spirit of John Henry. Also noteworthy is John Henry's wife, Polly, who "drove steel like a man" when John Henry is sick in bed.  The American folk tradition affords the same respect to women and men based on their willingness to work hard. I reccomend finding a few versions and comparing. Find a version that speaks to you, and hum it while you're in the shower.

This isn't meant to be a history of the song, but to draw attention to how stories like this shape our cultural identity. In this election year, before we attempt to make America great again, it's worth reflecting on what qualities make us great, who displays those values, and what we can learn from John Henry.

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