John Henry was a steel-drivin' bastard
August 28, 2007 11:34 PM   Subscribe

You've got just over two weeks to make it to the John Henry celebration in Leeds, Alabama, where some folks believe the legendary steel driving contest actually took place. Maybe you already made it to John Henry Days in Talcott, West Virginia (or read a fictionalized account), where some more folks claim the same. John Garst, Scott Nelson, and other folklorists weigh in here, supplemented by a wealth of links and resources on the subject. While you think on it let Mississippi Fred McDowell, The Boss, Ralph Stanley, John Jackson, Merle Travis, and Jason Isbell tell their own versions. John Garst and his research mentioned previously.
posted by Roman Graves (17 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
That Mississippi Fred McDowell clip is fucking brilliant. Thanks.
posted by dhammond at 11:38 PM on August 28, 2007

Not to mention this.
posted by pjern at 12:06 AM on August 29, 2007

Fine post, Roman Graves. Many thanks!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 2:41 AM on August 29, 2007

This tale of a man beating a machine (admittedly, dying shortly afterward, but still beating it) is a powerful one, born of the industrial revolution but still resonating today: we still want to believe a human chess master, for example, could always beat a computer...

Sure do wish I could go to that Leeds, Alabama (state of my birth and my youth) seminar: I'd like to hear Garst and others speak about their research and such.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:57 AM on August 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Great post, thanks. The Onion gives us the modern equivalent.
posted by marxchivist at 4:14 AM on August 29, 2007

Also not to be missed is Mississippi John Hurt's classic interpretation, Spike Driver's Blues. You can hear a snippet here.
posted by trip and a half at 4:54 AM on August 29, 2007

(Um, also just realized you can hear a complete version by clicking the "Listen to songs about John Henry" link at the bottom of the page in Roman Grave's "here" link in the original post.)
posted by trip and a half at 5:15 AM on August 29, 2007

The Iconography of John Henry

Projecting humanity's soul to a corporate killing machine with an ideology of greed and a hierarchy of screams. We are John Henry's children and as this we are alone eliza was a program John Henry had a soul. The screams that built an icon are a story left untold the useless battle was won by the owner of both machines. Bleed the fucking owner and we'll bleed the fucking machine. The remains will feed the earthworms and our screams will bow be heard. We are automata.

posted by geos at 6:17 AM on August 29, 2007

Excellent post. By the way, John Henry was also the inspiration for at least one superhero.
posted by Rangeboy at 8:42 AM on August 29, 2007

Smothers Brothers.
posted by MtDewd at 11:36 AM on August 29, 2007


I think I'll go. Leeds is thirty minutes down the road (and is near Moody's Crossroads, where my father was born).
Thanks for the Jason Isbell link. He needs more press. The original of that song (a much more rawk version) is on The Drive-By Truckers record "The Dirty South". I urge anyone who likes smart twangy pop to buy Isbell's "Sirens of the Ditch", his first solo effort, and pretty damn good, IMHO.

And that Oak Mountain tunnel is too accesible by vehicle, cuz I've ridden through it on a mountain bike, not knowing anything of its historical significance, just trying to get out of a summer thunderstorm. But yeah, I guess you can't actually, you know, DRIVE to it.

*scrolls down*

Wow! Donna Thornton is the sister of a guy I went to middle school with. He's a banker in Atlanta now. Small world.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 2:22 PM on August 29, 2007

Seconding BitterOldPunk's Isbell recommendation. It's a great album, if not quite as good as the Truckers' Decoration Day (still his finest moment, IMHO).
posted by Rangeboy at 3:08 PM on August 29, 2007

I love me some Colson Whitehead. John Henry Days was a great book. The Intuitionist was even better.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:46 PM on August 29, 2007

If ya'll haven't seen the Truckers live, or Isbell by himself, I highly recommend the experience. I caught his solo show for the first time last week and he blew me away.
posted by Roman Graves at 5:55 PM on August 29, 2007

continuing the Isbell/DBT derail: I saw DBT as the other half of a double-bill with Son Volt last April, and came away wondering just how I had missed out for so long. I had never heard a note of their music before, but that show made me go out and pick up most of their recent CDs. I'm sorry Isbell left -- his songs are highlights on the DBT records he participated in.
posted by harkin banks at 6:34 PM on August 29, 2007

I remember being taught a version of the folk-song when I was in elementary school, and being so touched by John Henry's death that I couldn't sing the end of the song. (I was 9 or 10 at the time)
posted by exlotuseater at 11:20 PM on August 29, 2007

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