Friday, July 8, 2011

What John Henry Means to Me

John Henry is a folk character, the larger then life railroad man who challenged a steam drill to a race and won

... only to die of exhaustion in his moment of victory.

There are many ways to look at this story: John Henry is a low-skilled worker, fighting against automation on the job. John Henry (along with Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan) is one of the last larger-than life American heroes lost in the age of “progress”. You can look at his story through the prism of race, class, masculinity, history.

Leadbelly sang about him

and Woody Guthrie

Here's Mississippi Fred McDowell:

and Bruce Springsteen:

You can also look at John Henry from the writer's perspective. Here is a man who kept at it, who discovered what he loved, what he was born to do (heck, he was born with a hammer in his hand, after all) and he engaged to the fullest. He didn't just drive steel he WAS a steel driving man.

Did he succeed? Not exactly.

Even in the most hopeful of versions, it's understood that in the future, steam drills will supplant spike drivers. So, then, is John Henry's life an example of futility?

I don't think so.

John Henry died satisfied. He died doing what he loved. Here's one version of his death scene:

"They took his hammer and wrapped it in gold

And gave it to Julia Ann;

And the last word John Hardy said to her was

Julia, do the best you can."

"If I die a railroad man,

Go bury me under the tie,

So I can hear old Number Four,

As she goes rolling by."

As I slog through one revision after another, I find myself thinking about John Henry. And though I don't always succeed, I try to approach my work with this sort of despite-everything joy.

Here's a lovely song-- one of my true favorites (and not even a one hit wonder!) about John Henry.... well actually about Elvis, who as Gillian Welch implies is sort of a sad counter point, a man who lost his love for his work and died "in long decline."

It's about John Henry, too, if tangentially.

When it comes to work-- both the paid and the aspiring variety—I would rather go out like John Henry, a hammer in my hand, satisfaction rather than success as my life's measure.

What about you?


Shellie said...

I see the story differently. John Henry is one of my favorite folklores. It's always sad when I get to the end. My interpretation of the story is that you can't fight progress but you can die trying. But since survival of the fittest means having the ability to adapt to change, it seems a foolish notion to fight what is inevitable. Still, had I written the story, I would have John Henry stay off automation just a little while longer. At least until his retirement. As for life work, I suppose I want both, personal satisfaction along with a great deal of success!

Angie said...

Great thoughts. I think I'd like to die with a hammer in my hand too!

Annie Boreson said...

A great reflective post. He did die doing what he loved, but the whole fact that he possibly collapsed before he had time to enjoy his moment is rather an unsatisfactory moment and disturbing. Truly, it meant that he sacrificed his life to show how absurd his goal to beat the vs. machine. It reminds me of artist who spend their whole life toiling in their craft only to die paupers and unknown, then to be resurrected in songs and "suddenly" discovered after their passing. Great post!

Renee said...

Having grown up on folklore characters such as John Henry, reading this post was a treat and to some extent a moment to go back in time. Teachers of English may assume the role of a modern day John Henry as reading and writing in schools is challenged. I would venture to say that they will be willing to die with the pen in hand.

Carol Apple said...

My thoughts for what they're worth... I love the idea of doing what you love no matter what. The most honorable death is dying for what is both true and what you love. The highest thing to love is truth. In that sense, sticking to your principles despite hardship and even to the death is admirable.

But still, it's sad sad sad when what you love gets run over by the train of progress (so to speak). In that case, I'm not sure that what you love is really the highest truth and worth dying for. I like writing with ink on paper but I don't scorn the computer (obviously). Poor brave stubborn John Henry!

Great blog! It's my first visit and like what I see here!

Misha said...

So true. I've been thinking about it a lot, lately. What is success, anyway? Isn't just the way other people see you? A way of being looked at as being rich, powerful and... happy?

But does success make me happy? Does it really matter what other people think of me when I'm drowning in the depths of despair?


So I came to the realization that I want to do what gives me joy, and do that to the absolute best of my abilities. Because one day, I want to look back at my life thinking, not of my success, but of my happy memories of living a life worth remembering.


Shelly said...


Elizabeth Young said...

I loved this post and concur with your feelings, although it would be nice to have the hammer in the hand and a little success! Awesome and thought provoking post.

Perri said...

Thanks so much everyone. I am humbled by the many ways to interpret the story.

Shellie, I can totally see how JH is about fighting change, and yes, also about extreme futility. Also, love the pen and paper vs keyboard analogy. (wow so much here to comment on!)

Really I was thinking most about the joy of doing what one feels "born to" no matter how hard and thankless. This is a form of success, as Misha so aptly put, progress, publishing and steam drills be damned!

Again, I've been AWOL/Out to lunch a bit and so enjoyed coming back to these amazing comments. Thanks you guys!