The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #50747   Message #3470521,3470521
Posted By: GUEST,John Garst
23-Jan-13 - 05:13 PM
Thread Name: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
Subject: RE: Origin Of John Henry--part TWO
Norm Cohen and Brett Williams, in their books (*Long Steel Rail* and *John Henry: A Bio-Bibliography*) argue against the job-saving interpretation because it is "too narrow" (Cohen) and because the story is really one of a "family tragedy" (Williams).

"For each John Henry left unemployed there will be a job for a steam-drill operator—not to mention for the factory worker who makes the steam drill and the mechanic who repairs it … The tragedy is not that the old ways of performing tasks are superannuated by newer ones, but that society finds it more convenient to discharge the old laborer than retrain him, or at least retire him in dignity." (Cohen, pp 74-75)

"It is this family context that gives John Henry his human dignity and complexity, renders his most profound statement, "A man ain't nothin' but a man," so proud and sad, and makes fictional parodies of him so often offensive. The song is a wonderful reaffirmation of the worth of a human life—a worker's in a workplace which denies it, a black man's in a context reminiscent of slavery, a southerner's during a time of bitter humiliation and drastic change—and, ultimately, of every ordinary person who through dignity and strength of will can be great. The ballad not only praises John Henry's courage and skill, but it also reminds us that the details of his personal life matter. Like all of us, he is a member of a family." (Williams, p 124)

To David Mamet, "the meaning of the song was not that he won but that he died—that the one person capable of defeating the machine is no more. The song, seemingly a paean to resistance, is, I think, more an assertion of its uselessness—'The hero died in the attempts; what do you think you could do?" (*Jafsie and John Henry*, pp 131-32)

These and similar interpretations are views of the *legend*, not of the historical John Henry. John Henry Dabney was earning his living, getting paid a little more than the typical dollar a day for black laborers in Alabama in 1887. Captain Fred Y. Dabney bet a steam-drill salesman that John Henry could beat his machine, and he offered John Henry fifty dollars and a new suit if he did it. John Henry's motives were simple: (1) to win prizes, (2) to win a steam drill for the Captain, (3) to live up to the Captain's boast, and (4) to justify his own pride.