Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Day John Henry Died

Everyone loves themselves a working class hero. And there is no greater working class hero in folklore than John Henry, the steel driving man who is said to have hammered himself to death.

Like all the best legends, dozens of versions of Henry's tale now exist, but the best we can piece together, this bull of a man was working on the construction of the railroads across America in the late 19th century.

And it was 122 years ago today, at least according to one account, that he sealed his place in history. The owners of the line Henry was working on, thought to be either the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway or the Columbus and Western Railway, wanted to bring in a steam-powered machine to do the job of their workers for less.

But Henry insisted he could do the work better than any such contraption, and a great battle, man versus machine, was arranged to settle the argument.

Away they went, with the steam drill eventually pulling narrowly ahead. Seeing this, Henry grabbed a second hammer and began again, catching up and surpassing the machine, which soon enough broke down. But in his moment of victory, Henry suffered a heart attack, and died with his hammer in his hand. So was born the legend of John Henry.

His story might have faded with time, but he lives on through a wealth of songs.

Woody Guthrie - John Henry (Woodie Guthrie Sings Folks Songs, 1962)

Many different versions (see Bruce at the foot of this list) exist of this retelling of Henry's story, but we'll start off with Woody's. The writing credit is given only as 'traditional' and each different version seems to add and take away verses, changing the details but not the meaning of the story. Henry is perfect fodder for Guthrie's brand of left-leaning folk music, in which the plight of the working man was a constant theme.

Johnny Cash - The Legend of John Henry's Hammer (At Folsom Prison, 1968)

The Man in Black's take on the Henry tale first appeared on the 1963 album Blood, Sweat and Tears, but the more famous version was the one sung by request during his legendary gig at Folsom Prison. Cash, who famously used a dollar bill to provide the percussion on 'Walk The Line', improvises the fitting sound of hammer on metal to keep the beat here.

Laura Veirs - John Henry Lives (The Triumphs and Travails of Orphan Mae, 2005)

Veirs steers clear of the details, disputed as they so often are, of Henry's life, but the lyrics 'By the railroad ties lies a hammer/It's all painted red' clearly speak to the sacrifice of Henry and the thousands of other, less famous men who built America's railroads.

The Felice Brothers - Take This Hammer (Tonight At The Arizona, 2007)

'Take This Hammer' is an old prison work song which shares many themes with Bill Monroe's Nine Pound Hammer, one of the oldest songs of John Henry's legend. Here the Felice Brothers use it to bring the house down in a live recording which only serves to make me more excited to be off to see them next month.

The Drive-By Truckers - The Day John Henry Died (The Dirty South, 2004)

At this current rate, it will only be another couple of months before we've sampled every song from The Dirty South on this blog, but then it's hardly a surprise given how many great stories are told on this album. In this updating of Henry's tale, the Drive-By Truckers draw the parallel to more recent upheavals in the US economy.

Gillian Welch - I Dream A Highway (Time The Revelator, 2001)

Welch only makes passing references to Henry's legend, but does so often enough to get a mention here. Henry shows up in Elvis Presley Blues, featured on here last month, and later again on the same album in I Dream A Highway.

Steve Earle - Steve's Hammer (For Pete) (Washington Square Serenade, 2007)

Although primarily about his move to New York and his new bride, Allison Moorer, Earle didn't entirely forget the politics that had dominated his previous two albums in Washington Square Serenade, and called on the ever-reliable legend of Henry.

Bruce Springsteen - John Henry (We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, 2006)

I don't think I've ever heard an album on which it sounds like the artists were having more fun recording it than this. Springsteen rips through a full-length version of the traditional classic 'John Henry'. Given the Boss' affinity with all things blue collar, the only surprise is that it took until he did a album of classic American folk songs before he ever got to singing of John Henry.

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