A History of American Protest Songs, Parts 1 & 2
October 5, 2017 9:54 AM   Subscribe

Who was that steel-drivin' man, John Henry? In the folktale, a powerful black steel-driving man named John Henry challenges the steam drill to a race, beats it, and dies. In some versions, John Henry is almost seven feet tall. In others, he wears fine clothes and commands any price for his work. In our national consciousness, he stands for the common man, beaten by industrialization, but unbowed. [part 1]

Part 2 Lee Hays was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. He learned to sing Sacred Harp—the traditional shape-note choral music—in his father’s church. Just as he reached his teens, Lee’s life fell apart. His father died in a car accident. His mother lost her mind from grief. The Great Depression wiped the family out, preventing Lee from attending school. He ended up in Cleveland, Ohio, working as a page in a local library. Here the 16-year-old Lee Hays—already over six feet tall, blue-eyed and sandy haired—became radicalized.
posted by MovableBookLady (12 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
This is fantastic. Best of the web. You are awesome MovableBookLady.
posted by Melismata at 10:08 AM on October 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

It's really hard for me to draw optimism from these stories at the present moment in time. All that truth, all the careful planning, all the courage, all the heartbreak, not just Hays and Seger but all the strikers and protestors and just those who said no, this is not OK --- and whatever gains may be attributed to them lasted maybe three decades. It broke Hays' heart to take the 5th but would it have even mattered if he didn't?

But I guess three decades is something.

Thank you for the articles.
posted by PMdixon at 10:08 AM on October 5, 2017

I've been developing a thing lately for old time protest songs. One of my favorite Uncle Tupelo songs is Coal Miners
Dear miners, they will slave you
Until you can't work no more
And what will you get for your labor
but a dollar in the company store
A tumbledown shack to live in
Snow and rain pouring through the top
and you have to pay the company rent
and your payments will never stop
I grew up on songs like Big John and Sixteen Tons.

We've gone a long way to get to "Workin" from Big Smo - from "Take this job and shove it".
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:14 AM on October 5, 2017

Good stuff! Thank you, MoveableBookLady!

If you find yourself in need of a lift today, please go watch and listen to Bruce Springsteen's Seeger Sessions band perform "John Henry." Raucous and a song of protest.
posted by MonkeyToes at 10:37 AM on October 5, 2017 [4 favorites]

Mm, I don't take a lot of optimism (period) but I find strength in successful struggle. There's no such thing as permanent victory. Thirty years of a better life is so much longer than most people get

Anyway, these articles are so rad.

. It was here that Lee developed a talent for creating what he called “zipper songs”—radicalizing old hymns by “zipping in” new lyrics. “It’s that union train a-coming-coming-coming,” Lee would sing with his comrades on “The Old Ship of Zion,” ready “to break into the old hymn words if gun thugs should appear.”

I love these. I've had Billy Bragg's Battle Cry of Freedom/There Is Power In a Union stuck in my head for weeks. Thanks, the Civil War, for making these way easy.
posted by peppercorn at 11:06 AM on October 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

Mississippi John Hurt's "Spike Driver Blues" provided the guitar line to Gillian Welch's "Elvis Presley Blues". Time (The Revelator) has a lot of John Henry references, including one to Mr Johnny Cash. It's not the smoothest and most comfortable invocation of the tradition, but that's the album with "Everything Is Free", still one of the best songs about professional musicians facing the steam-drill of file-sharing.
posted by holgate at 11:14 AM on October 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

It's almost too simple to say that, right now, we could use "a unifying thing, basic humanity", as Seeger says to HUAC. We need these stories of defiance and struggle, not in a political sense (only), but in every sense. "All sense of decency" is precious, withering away when it goes unnourished... Anyway, thanks for sharing some nourishment, MoveableBookLady!
posted by pt68 at 11:16 AM on October 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

Requesting recommendations for more music like this please. This is some pretty music, despite the less than pretty stories behind it. I've even contemplated searching for some good vinyl of the same if that's a recommendation you have.

Thanks for this post, good stuff.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:20 AM on October 5, 2017

I've been to the tunnel where John Henry died. There's a statue there now, which I remember as being fairly ugly, but it was it pretty bad shape at the time, so, this is more how I remember it. I'm glad they fixed it up and moved it down beside the tunnel. It's a little strange to walk around the setting of such a ubiquitous folk tale, like if you could visit the remains of the griddle that Paul Bunyan's co-workers greased by skating on pats of butter or see a museum exhibit with the rope Pecos Bill used to lasso a tornado.
posted by Copronymus at 12:50 PM on October 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Funny timing... my guitar teacher just handed me a blues titled John Henry last week and I've been reading all about the steel drivin' man since. Look forward to these pieces, thanks.
posted by jonrob at 2:11 PM on October 5, 2017

The earliest version I remember is by Harry Belafonte at Carnegie Hall. Probably heard it when I was 7 or 8 years old, and though I didn't know squat about anything I knew there was some undercurrent that I was missing.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 10:24 AM on October 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

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