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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

John Henry of the 21st Century - Part 1

I'm departing a bit from my usual type of post because I think something really important, in the world, has happened this week. Remember the legend of John Henry? There are many versions of the folk song (making it a true folk song), but the Woody Guthrie lyrics are probably the best known- this is a variation of them:

When John Henry was a little baby
A-sittin' on his mammy's knee
Picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel,
Said, "Hammer be the death of me, lord, lord,
Hammer be the death of me."

Some say he's born in Texas
Some say he's born in Maine
I just say he was a Louisiana man
Leader of a steel-drivin' chain gang,
Leader of a steel-drivin' gang.

John Henry said to the shaker,
"Shaker, you had better pray.
If I miss your six feet of steel
Tomorrow'll be your buryin' day, lord, lord,
Tomorrow'll be your buryin' day."

Well, the Captain said to John Henry,
"Gonna bring that steam drill round,
Gonna bring that steam drill out on the job,
Gonna whup that steel on down, down, down,
Gonna whup that steel on down."

John Henry said to the captain,
"You can bring that steam drill round,
You can bring that steam drill out on the job,
I'll beat that steam drill down, down, down,
I'll beat that steel drill down."

Now, John Henry said to the Captain,
"A man ain't nothin' but a man
But before I'd let that steam drill beat me down
I'd die with a hammer in my hand, lord, lord,
I'd die with a hammer in my hand

John Henry was workin' on the right side,
The steam drill was workin' on the left,
You know he beat that steam drill out on the job,
But he hammered his poor self to death,
He hammered his self to death.

They took John Henry to the tunnel
The buried him in the sand,
And every train that came roarin' down the line
They said, "There lies a steel drivin' man, lord, lord,
There lies a steel drivin' man."

Just a little bit of explanation- This song describes laying railroad by hand. the Shaker was the title of the man who held the spikes for the driver. If the driver missed with his sledge hammer, it could definitely mean severe injury or death for the shaker. John Henry was a real person, the kernel of this story is true. The C&O Railroad was drilling a tunnel through Big Bend Mountain in West Virginia. The song sometimes refer to drilling of the tunnel, or sometimes to the number of feet of rail laid. Supposedly, John Henry drilled 16 feet in a 12-hour shift, while the steam drill only made 9 feet. However, the next morning, John Henry was found dead, the assumption being that the effort had killed him. He's supposedly buried near the Big Bend Tunnel.

Do you know where I'm going with this story next? Come back tomorrow to find out.

Meanwhile, enjoy this pre-Guthrie (think: before folk music was commercial) version- it loads slowly- turn off your sound, let it load, then come back and hit replay.


Secondary Roads said...

Now you've got me dangling here in suspense. It's a good song, but what will be your modern-day interpretation therof?

Ann said...

well I hope it doesn't mean that you are going to become a driller :)
Looking forward to hearing what's next

spinninglovelydays said...

Normally, I'd go on research mode upon reading such a post, but I'm still not well... being online still makes me gag, sigh. I just wanted to say "hi". Hope all's well with you.

Ferd said...

Can't wait 'til part 2!

Sharkbytes said...

Chuck- Did you figure it out? Suspense is good!

Ann- Ha! Now that would be a really literal interpretation, but not exactly important to the world.

Ivy- So nice to see you! Hope you feel all better really soon.

Ferd- Good! I like knowing you will come back.