|For a Song
October 2005A Man Aint Nothin But a Man: "The Ballad of John Henry"
Like other traditional ballads, "John Henry" developed over time, incorporating pre-existing lines, verses, and concepts, and took different forms each time it was sung. A musician playing it today might adopt a previously recorded or published version, blend different versions, or add new verses of his or her own. The songbook from which I learned "John Henry" when I was ten has an added verse and a substitute line in my guitar teachers handwriting.
Analyzing lyrics to a song that is always "in process" is a more open-ended task than explaining verses penned by one known songwriter and existing in one undisputed published form. By focusing on a version of "John Henry" compiled by the great folksong collector and historian Alan Lomax, from his landmark volume Folk Songs of North America, we can shed light on many details and a few main themes they reveal.
At the heart of traditional ballads are our species boundless drive and capacity to entertain itself. Such songs predate the recording industry. They spread and lasted through the generations without the printing press -- by the oral tradition. Their simple melodies, rhythms, verse structures, and frequent repetitions make the songs accessible to all, including young children. I memorized the above-mentioned 11 verses with little difficulty. Their rich comic, tragic, or tragicomic tales, metaphorical images, and double entendres bespeak the pleasure our species takes in succinct, sophisticated renderings that reflect real events full dimensions, reinforce core human values, and allude to vices with and without which we cannot live.
Learning even a modest body of such material from grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and siblings -- as generation after generation did -- could at one and the same time socialize, awe, mystify, teach, and warn.
A man among men
Here is Lomaxs description of the setting for the event that made the John Henry legend, adapted from L.W. Chappells book John Henry:
The namesake of this tune, six feet tall and 200 pounds, was reputed to out-sing and out-drive any other man on the job. Right there we have the makings of a folk hero -- a man who is and does bigger than other men, prompting fantasies of a larger-than-life figure with whom we can identify yet who bears us beyond our weakness, vulnerability, futility -- and in the case of the real John Henry, the prospect of being deemed less important than an inanimate object.
For in John Henrys time, the steam drill was invented. John Henry and his crewmates were in the service of the C&O Railroad in the West Virginia Mountains circa 1870. The C&O undertook construction of the longest tunnel ever: the Big Bend Tunnel, 1.25 miles long -- like going to the moon a century later, the stuff of legend. If a machine could drive steel faster and at lower cost than men could, what would preserve their meager-but-crucial wages? Big John Henry inspired hope as well as respect.
And among women
Such songs predate automobiles, air conditioning, television, movies, the Internet, and pro sports as we know them today. After long, hot, strenuous, harrowing days of work, with rocks falling on men without ambulances or health insurance, just a few pleasures offered respite: the usual suspects, the stuff of folksongs. Drinking and gambling songs abound. But John Henrys strength and physical skill reminded creators, singers, and hearers of verses about him of different pleasures.
Look at the first four verses and you see folks bantering in a way that sets the stage for the legendary Henry. A man laments that "his" woman pretends to love him when hes "here," badmouths him behind his back when hes "gone," and couldnt be happier than when he shows up with money to spend. While he is away, she comes by some fine clothes -- "slippers from a railroad man," "dress from a driver in the mine."
And verse 4 precisely and suggestively tells us any woman who knew or knew of John Henry wanted him as "my man" -- yesterdays euphemism for todays clinical "sexual partner." Family members -- with whom sexual activity would be taboo -- can attend to her feet, her hands, and her "red, ruby lips"; the rest is for John Henry. The "currency" in which the song tells us Henry trades is better than "a twenty-dollar bill," "yo slippers," and "the dress you are wearin so fine" -- its the sexual prowess to which his powerful hammering is compared. This is echoed after the verses about the contest against the steam drill, when the singer tell us of "a little woman" and "another woman" John Henry "had" without being married to them, the singer saying, "And I wish my wife was true."
They were all true to John Henry without even knowing him, but not even marriage could bind them to lesser men. This is to praise John Henry in the way of storytelling from time immemorial more than to lament the singers wifes unfaithfulness. Henry is the hero -- he "got the girl." The singer might even be saying that the "other woman" was his own wife! Sure to get a laugh out of the group gathered around listening to the song -- and at the same time indicate the singers awe of his subject is so great that it overcomes any jealousy one might feel if a lesser mans death so affected his wife that "She went walkin down the track and she never look back."
Emphasizing Henrys "manhood," the song takes till the fifth verse -- a point at which many songs are over! -- to hint at Henrys famous deed, without which his name would not top the tune, and takes four more verses at the end to describe the impact on the women of Henrys life -- and of his death now that life is gone from him.
Prophecy and greatness
When the song first mentions the key event that makes John Henrys name, Henry is "just a lil baby, / Settin on his daddys knee." He prophecies his own death, pointing at a piece of steel and saying "Steel gon be the death of me." In the next verse, he is still young enough to be taken places by his parents or other elders -- "They took John Henry to the mountain" -- but old enough to have a hammer. Overwhelmed at the size of the mountain compared to him -- "Mountain so tall and John Henry so small" -- "He lied down his hammer and he cried."
In short order -- just one verse later -- the captain of the railroad crew, observing John Henry and ostensibly his shaker and other steel-driving teams at work, says he thinks he hears the mountain "sinkin in" -- a real danger when youre making a tunnel. Henry assures him its "nothin but my hammer catchin wind" -- that is, the captain has never before heard a man swing a hammer with such force that the sound of it in its arc toward the shakers hand-held drill could mimic a cave-in. Along with the prophecy -- the kind of foreknowledge associated with great heroes of history, scripture, and literature -- this attests to Henrys superhuman nature.
It also gets in a little dig at the captain and his ilk: bosses who dont know whats really going on at the work site and are frightened by the noises the workers hear all day long.
Let the contest begin!
In verse 8, recognizing that the newly created steam drill can drive steel faster than ordinary men can, the captain announces that he will bring a steam drill to the site where John Henry is working to "beat John Henry down." That verse also suggests -- "Gonna bring my steam drill around "Gonna beat " -- that the captain confuses the machines potential to outpace John Henry with his own ability to do so, showing the puffery of those who hold authority without doing the hard work and Henrys superiority to those of higher social status as well as to his peers.
John Henrys response to the captains challenge, in verse 9, is telling: He would rather die than let the steam drill beat him. Why?! Its only a contest, isnt it? Not exactly. Life was extremely hard even for men with work in those days -- and harder for those without. John Henrys staking his life on beating a machine that threatens to put men out of work makes him a hero rather than just a great worker, lover, and all-around good guy. His defying the captain also meant more in a time before workers had any rights and when bosses did not pretend to be "one of the guys."
A man for all seasons
John Henrys hero status, his immortality, is sealed by his death, which the song says came from the strain of the contest with the steam drill. That is all the more striking because the song diverges from reality on that important detail. He is believed to have died in one of the frequent cave-ins that threatened all tunnel workers. Reality did not inspire as well as the song does.
The legend, as we have seen, though, does not begin and end with his literal hammer. Why could the "woman in the west" "hardly stay in bed"? She goes "where John Henrys dead," even though she is surely too late for his funeral, suggesting she would rather "be with" a dead John Henry than with whoever is her bedmate at the time. And even buried "in the sand," he is "my steel-drivin man" to "[e]very little woman come down the road."
What about "family values"?
Like many other folksongs, originally "John Henry" would have been sung by adults during work and "play." If children occasionally might have been present, most would not pick up on the double entendre and the sexual content, not having had the experience alluded to. Radio and television were not around to fill in the kids by generating public controversy over whether or not children should be permitted to hear such things.
After World War II, the GI Bill, VA- and FHA-backed mortgages, and the Baby Boom saw millions of couples purchase their own homes. Record players and other luxuries became commonplace, and records could help meet a need for entertainment in isolating homes whose adult inhabitants no longer lived among long-established family and community groups with their local gathering places, where people might take turns singing songs or sing together songs they all knew. So the recording industry found a large middle-class white audience for folksongs. One problem: Many folksongs, such as "John Henry," were X-rated (that term did not yet exist). This new way of life, particularly with radio and television, threatens the oral tradition of which "John Henry" is a part.
Without having explored the matter thoroughly, I think the mass audience helps explain why the Pete Seeger songbook from which I learned "John Henry" as a child a century after Henrys triumph offered a sanitized version of the song. Ten verses long (without the one my teacher penciled in), it starts with the infant John Henrys prophecy, dwells almost entirely on his contest with the steam drill, and after his death refers to a woman who "drove steel like a man" when John Henry "took sick and had to go to bed" and John Henrys baby who said, "My daddy was a steel-driving [not "drivin"] man." No sexual context from which the hammering could acquire sexual meaning. Acceptable for everyone in the family. See how adaptable folksongs are to every cultural need and purpose?
...David J. Cantor
Copyright © 2005 SoundStage!
All Rights Reserved