John Henry takes up his hammer, drives steel as fast as he can. He’s swinging thirty pounds from his hips on down, and he dies with his hammer in his hand.

I think just about everyone knows that. But the part I love is when Miss Polly Ann walks down to the tracks, picks up John Henry’s hammer, and Polly drove steel like a man. Yes, Polly drove steel like a man.

That seems like fidelity to me.

Faithfulness not just when it comes to your man, but faithfulness to your man, that willingness to see through what he started, because it was important to him. Polly Ann gets but one verse. Still, I love her. I can see why John Henry loves her.

And it breaks my heart, this fucked up desire to prove that a person can do a job just as well as a machine. When a machine lays down its hammer and dies, there’s no woman to give a shit.

And yet, when a person works, a person gets paid.

Ah, the industrial revolution. Our blessing and our curse. John Henry wins and loses.

He shook it and he beat that steam drill, baby

Well bless my soul

He shook it and he beat that steam drill, baby

Well bless my soul, what’s wrong with me?

I rarely think about Elvis, that country boy who combed his hair and put on a shirt his mother made and he went on the air, when I think of John Henry.

I think of the guy who instead lays his hammer down–“If [the captain] asks you, was I runnin’, tell him I was flyin’. Tell him I was flyin’. I don’t want no corn bread and ‘lasses. Hurts my pride. Hurts my pride.”

John Henry can’t stop, can’t lose to a machine; he’s got his pride. But he’s dead now so what’d that get anyone else? Some folks are too proud to let a machine take their place and some folks are too proud to do work that could be done by a machine instead.

Take my hammer, carry it to the captain. Tell him I’m gone. Tell him I’m gone.


Update on Monday, August 14, 2006 at 06:55AM