November 09, 2005
In “John Henry”, the folk version, John Henry is portrayed in a very clean, wholesome manner. His wife is named Julie Ann, who remains unknown until the tenth stanza, in this version. There is an emphasis on their love and who will care for her after he dies. Apparently, he felt he was going to die while trying to beat the drill. When I read this version, I pictured a perfect couple with a perfect life. He has money in the bank, a good work ethic, a beautiful wife, and a great spirit. Honestly, this sounds more like a white “Cleaver family”. The language used shows the accent, but not a complete representation of their dialect. It is still easy to read or sing if you do not know the area language. In this version, “John Henry told the cap’n,/When you go to town,/Buy me a nine pound hammer/An’ I’ll drive this steel drill down,/An’ I’ll drive this steel drill down.” It sounds like a more cordial relationship than demanding slave driver.
The construction crew version of “John Henry” was quite different from the folk. Like in the other versions, his wife is very important to him, but she is named Lucy in this version. She is introduced in the third stanza, making her a more important part of John’s life. He had a much closer relationship with Captain Tommy, especially when it came to competing. This version is much more realistic to me. John dies. Lucy is left without a man. It does not seem so fluffy and sugarcoated. Also, the language is more representative of the way John would have spoken. You read the words in the way they’re listed and you feel like you are a slave working on the railroad, rather than an upper class white board member.
I really do not see John Henry as a tall tale, other than the fact there are multiple versions of the story. I could see a man trying to prove that he is just as worthy as a mechanical drill, and pushing himself past the point of personal safety. It can be considered a social commentary when you consider the varying language and perspectives that are represented in the different versions. I see it as more of story about technology than race. This really is about a man fighting for his job during the industrial revolution. Granted, he is African-American and working for a Caucasian boss, but this was the norm in the time period. The ballad says much more about how we value our employees.
Posted by MeredithHarber at November 9, 2005 09:09 PM
I agree that this is about technology. It could also be about race since the owner was more concerned about saving money than keeping his African American employees. However, the owner would have probably felt the same way no matter what the ethnicity of his workers.
Posted by: Stacy at November 9, 2005 10:14 PM
You don't see it as a tall tale? I do. While it has a nice moral which anyone, of any race, can identify with, there is still the folk element to the story, making it a tall tale. Do you see the racial elements or technological ones to the story either? I feel it focuses alot on the impact of technology (why do I think of "Napoleon Dynamite" here? The wedding scene? "I love technology..." Ok, sorry. haha) in the world. It took away the jobs and, in a way, life of many people during that time. Hence why Henry's death was both literal and figurative- he died from working to save his job but would have "died" regardless.
Posted by: Vanessa at November 10, 2005 01:14 AM
I did see the connection between a the ballad and the demonstration of a typical working class family. It seems like John Henry had to do his job everyday to support his family with the stay-at-home mom and children. I think the songs helped them get through the day while thinking of their beautiful families whom gave them inspiration, along with the ballads.
Posted by: Ashley Holtzer at November 10, 2005 08:31 AM