Thursday, July 26, 2007

John Henry as American archetype

toothpaste for dinner

(Welcome to those of you visiting from The Edge of the American West. I hope you'll stay and have a look around.)

My daughters' godmother recently asked me to burn a CD for her of songs from the '20s and '30s having to do with racial prejudice; to fill it out, I thought I'd pull together a collection of work songs and songs about the migration from the farm to the city that began in earnest during the Depression. My source for most of this music was the 3-volume (6-CD) Anthology of American Folk Music, compiled by Harry Smith, and the collection Smith intended for release but wasn't until after his death, Anthology of American Folk Music Vol. 4.

[Aside: anyone interested in knowing more about the foundations of American popular music is directed here post-haste; only early jazz (arguably not folk) and conjunto (which most definitely is folk) aren't represented here (though it's possible Smith might have done so in hinted-at future volumes of the Anthology that never got made), and it's this assemblage that inspired folk and rock singers of the '60s and on into today (fans of 16 Horsepower and Jay Farrar will hear unmistakable echoes of their music as they listen to the Anthology; 16 Horsepower also recorded the Carter Family's "Single Girl, Married Girl," which is included in that collection, and Neko Case's "John Saw That Number," on Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, is directly inspired by Rev. Moses Mason's "John the Baptist.")]

While pulling these songs together for my friend, I became interested in the 4 John Henry songs included on the anthologies. Here they are, in approximate chronological order:

J. E. Mainer's Mountaineers, "John Henry Was a Little Boy"
The Williamson Brothers, "Gonna Die with My Hammer in My Hand"
The Monroe Brothers, "Nine-Pound Hammer Is Too Heavy"
Mississippi John Hurt, "Spike Driver Blues"

Below the fold, some musings on John Henry as an American archetype, in honor of Carl Jung's birthday today.

In his liner notes for "John Henry Was a Little Boy" (on vol. 4 of the Anthology), Dick Spottwood writes, "Tracking John Henry is analogous to documenting the historical Jesus" (53). The Wikipedia article on John Henry does a good job of tracing out the various attempts to link the legend out of which the songs sprang to a historical analogue to the legend's central event, John Henry's competition with the steam-driving machine. At the end of "The Legend of John Henry's Hammer," which Johnny Cash co-wrote with June Carter, Cash briefly offers up the West Virgina story as confirmation of the stories' historical basis. But note the plural: stories. One thing that interests me about the John Henry songs is their variations--the four Smith included in the Anthology is just a small sample. Spottswood says in his liner notes that precisely the lack of confirming historical details regarding John Henry is what allowed the different versions, and thus the legend, to not just survive but flourish and propagate its variations.

I think the other reason the John Henry legend produced so many songs, and so many songs that respond to the songs, such as "Spike Driver Blues," is that the legend touches on so many themes at the core of our nation's collective unconscious. The legend is ostensibly about a railroad-builder, but the instrument at the center of the legend is not the man so much as the hammer: sledges were and are used for all sorts of work, and hammers in general are just about as ubiquitous a tool as one can imagine. The John Henry songs are at one level part of the larger body of work songs, which I've discussed in passing before. It's important to note as well that America's legendary figures--Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, Mike Fink--are connected, however remotely, with manual labor. We have nothing in our cultural memory remotely akin to, say, the Knights of the Round Table. That's an inevitable result of our nation's origins occurring within historical memory. We know as much as we need to know about the Famous Guys; folk legends, though, derive their oxygen from the absence or the forgetting or loss of the historical record. Labor built this nation, we're told and told and told, yet the laborers' names don't exactly leap to mind. We don't know the names of the men who dug the Erie Canal or built the railroads, yet there those things are, structures heroic in their dimensions the stories of whose building are, ultimately, the stories of the men who built them. The labor pool thus came to serve as the source of our legends. Tangentially, though John Henry is African-American, his legend isn't exclusively the possession of black people--the songs I've linked to above are performed by both black and white singers. John Henry's experience (as recorded in the songs) is not rooted in his people's slave heritage but in manual labor, which, once upon a time in this country, none but a very privileged few were completely exempt from.

The contest between the steam-driver machine and John Henry encapsulates perfectly the ambivalent relationship between people and technology that is one of the core tensions of the American experience as explored in our nation's strain of Romanticism. Mechanization is an inarguable Good in terms of increased productivity, but it's not an unmitigated one. And here, I think, is why the John Henry legend has had such a vital history compared to those of the other American folk heroes: they lack that ambivalence. They are larger than the work they are associated with and so aren't at war with the mechanizing of that work. However, as many if not most of the John Henry songs have their hero declare, "A man ain't nothin' but a man." The songs all make clear that he is born not just to work but to drive steel; if a machine takes his place, what is there for him?

Thus, there's more than a little psychological anxiety in the John Henry legend that draws and holds our collective attention to it to this day. We take rightful pride in what our nation's machines have achieved and the standard of living they have brought us. But as more and more generations intervene between us and the farm and fewer and fewer of us, these pre-fab, frozen-food days, have to (or want to) work with our hands in any substantive way, what form does a society take whose members feel less and less defined by or connected to the work they perform--or, for that matter, less and less connected to the people who perform manual labor on their behalf? These are difficult questions. I don't think it's too much of an exaggeration, though, to suggest that the John Henry legend asks us to consider them.


Camille said...

I had a fantastic Ezra Keats illustrated version of John Henry when I was little. I was always so sad when I got the the last page and he died.

Its impossible not to root for him.

R. Sherman said...

Apropos, I noted the Mississippi John Hurt reference. One of my partners maintains a John Hurt web page if you're interested. (Number 3 on Google, I think.) He's burned some CD's for me and I can't get enough.