Not long ago, the fake-news rag The Onion cleverly updated an Industrial Age tale for the Digital Era: "Modern-Day John Henry Dies Trying To Out-Spreadsheet Excel 11.0." Fitting the tale of a nerdy number-cruncher into the framework of a mythically strong folk hero, the Onion made at least one reader laugh uncontrollably. When he had recovered his breath, that reader — okay, I — recognized that the story was so funny precisely because the parallel was so apt. The original, legendary John Henry had also died in a battle of man vs. machine.
I first heard the story of John Henry in a book of folk songs my parents kept by the piano and sang from often. "I've Been Working on the Railroad" was actually the biggest family favorite. I never made the connection that the two songs came out of the same historical experience, and in any case I imagined such songs to be mere fanciful stories, no more "real" than the hole in the bottom of the sea or poor Charlie who could get never get off the subway for want of a nickel. (If his wife could pass him a sandwich through the train window, couldn't she just as easily pass him the darn coin?) These songs were about tall tales and humor, not logic and reality.
Later I learned how the American folk song collections I'd grown up with in the '60s and '70s owed their existence to the socialistic, unionizing movement that came out of the Great Depression. "Working on the Railroad" referred to actually working on the railroad; it was the working man, not the rich man, who was hurt by subway fare increases; and John Henry symbolized the worker for whom hard labor meant a life cut short.
But John Henry himself, of course, was a myth, a made-up person, a symbol, like Paul Bunyan, or Superman. Funny thing, though — turns out there really was a steel-drivin' man named John Henry, a convict at the Virginia State Penitentiary who was conscripted to help dig the railroad tunnels that would connect the South with the West. He and his fellow workers did drive steel by hand alongside newfangled steam drills; he, with many others, died on the job, and was buried, just as the song says, in the sand by a "white house."
Scott Reynolds Nelson, a history professor at the College of William and Mary, used cultural clues and dogged research to track down this real-life John Henry, and tells the story in this fascinating new book. A well-balanced combination of scholarship and popular history, the first part of the book vividly, if swiftly, re-creates life in the Virginias during and immediately after Reconstruction.
Blacks, freed after the Civil War, remained subject to a separate justice system. When convicted of minor crimes they received disproportionate sentences. John William Henry, far from the mythological giant, was a short New Jersey teenager who became Prisoner 497 after he stole something from a grocery store outside Petersburg, Virginia in 1866. The prison needed to support itself. The railroads needed strong workers who couldn't strike for higher wages. Though seen by some reformers as a way to transfer prisoners out of terrible prison conditions and into healthy outdoor work, the resultant convict lease system turned out to be a death sentence for whole populations of inmates.
The invention of dynamite had made it feasible to tunnel through the hard, ancient rock of the Allegheny Mountains. But men still had to drill the holes for the explosives. In the early 1870s, railroad contractors were testing unreliable new steam drills alongside their teams of powerful, steel-driving men. Apparently, competition occurred. A legend was born.
Along with a concise history of Southern railroads and Reconstruction justice, Nelson traces the musical forms out of which different versions of the John Henry song evolved, explaining how songs and chants – often misinterpreted by whites as indicating high spirits – were really tools to prevent injury while working in teams. The new stream drills, for their part,
lacked the flexibility found in the skilled two-man hammer teams that had been tunneling through mountains for centuries. The hammer man swung a sledgehammer down onto the chisel. The shaker shifted the drill [the chisel] between blows to improve the drill's bite… Song coordinated the movements… humorous songs, sad songs, religious songs, all rhythm and meter and intonation but without an obvious melody – phrases, really… Theirs was a finely tuned instrument that a manufactured steam drill could not match. [C&O Railroad mogul Collis Porter] Huntington imagined that a steam drill could replace the skilled labor of miners, that he could work without their rock and roll. He was wrong.
So, the next time Grandpa complains that "kids' music these days" is all beat and no tune, remind him that "rock and roll" got its backbeat, and its very name, from the motions and songs of black railroad diggers who toiled in the mountains long before he and Grandma were jitterbugging to the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.
Nelson's evidence for identifying John William Henry, Prisoner 497, as the source of the "John Henry" legend is inconclusive, though tantalizing. Biographical information on Nelson's John Henry is, and probably will remain, too skimpy for certainty. The song "John Henry," however, probably is, as Nelson claims, the most recorded American folk song. There are more, probably many more, than 200 versions. (It appears on two recordings discussed in my Indie Round-up column just in the past six months: the Big Bill Broonzy Amsterdam Live Concerts 1953, and Hillstomp's 2004 debut CD.) It exists in many versions and has taken on many meanings. "Among trackliners who lived by their strength, [it] found its home as a story of heroism, one tinged with anxiety about the future," Nelson says. Though the story of John Henry's death may have originally been told in the form of a relatively tuneless "hammer song," it
was carefully folded into the familiar and disturbing horrors of the ballad tradition. Coal miners, black and white, made John Henry one of their own…a Moses who gave the South the Promised Land of the West, but could not live to see it. For prisoners, the song suggested the questions about loved ones: Would they be true, and would prisoners ever live to see them again?
Nelson seems ambivalent about the "English professors and sociologists" through whose agency the song was transformed from a "complex and unsettling story" to "a fabulous, impossible legend" that had, by the twentieth century, come to serve as "a historical commentary, its performance carefully calibrated to recall a bygone era." He seems to lament a loss of purity, while recognizing that songs belong to the people and are forever developing and mutating. Placing "John Henry" in context at the nexus of what became American blues, folk, and country music, he closes with a section that includes a description of how the song spread after its "rediscovery" early in the twentieth century, from earliest recordings to popular interpretations by white artists – among them Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, Johnny Cash, Drive-By Truckers, and Bruce Springsteen – and black artists such as Harry Belafonte, Mississippi John Hurt, and Cephas and Wiggins (though he does not mention all of these).
Nelson's focus on the development of American musical forms through the lens of "John Henry" will prove enlightening to musicians and to fans of roots music. He does, however, fly quickly through this history, and some of his declarations seem a little pat. Was Carl Sandburg really the "first American folk singer?" Did Fiddlin' John Carson "invent" country music? The book contains occasional inconsistencies and editorial or factual errors. No German or American city had a population in the "tens of millions" during the years 1871 to 1921 (or ever), and that's a 50-year span, not 40. The band They Might Be Giants titled an album John Henry but did not record the song.
Equally important was the use of John Henry's image and story by the labor movement. There were plays about John Henry, children's books about John Henry (I remember one of those), and comic book heroes like Superman who evolved (in Nelson's analysis) from the John Henry strongman character as depicted by artists of the early twentieth century. Several examples of that impressive John Henry artwork are reproduced in the book.
Few things are more interesting than when folklore and history dovetail. This book is a valuable contribution to both studies, and a fascinating read. It's not flawless. The writing is occasionally awkward, and some errors have slipped through the editorial process. There are extensive notes, but an appendix pointing the reader to at least some of the recordings mentioned in the book would have been welcome. And Nelson, while an acknowledged railroad expert and a credible folklorist, is not a musicologist. Nevertheless he is well-qualified to tell this story, and it's a good one.