To Thread - Forum Home

The Mudcat Café TM
27 messages

What did John Henry mean?

09 Mar 99 - 01:40 AM (#62038)
Subject: What did John Henry mean?
From: Terry

Anyone know what John Henry was talking about in this verse?

John Henry tol' his shaker, Shaker, you better pray, For if I miss dis six-foot steel, Tomorrow'll be yo' buryin' day, Lawd, Lawd, tomorrow'll be yo' buryin' day."

What's a shaker and what happens if J.H. misses?


09 Mar 99 - 02:00 AM (#62041)
Subject: RE: What did John Henry mean?
From: Barry Finn

John had to drill holes in the rock so it (the holes) could be packed with explosives. A shaker or turner (really an assistant to the steel driver who'd turn the bit as it kept going deeper in) would hold a steel rock bit (& try not to shake) while John would "I'm swing 40 pounds from my hips on down, you otta hear that cold steel ring". A 9 or a 12 pound hammer would be more like it though, then if you missed you'd only cave in the shaker's squash & if he were holding a long bit for someone with a 40 lb sledge then there was nothing in that ol noggin of his to begin with, no brain no pain. Barry

09 Mar 99 - 01:17 PM (#62091)
Subject: RE: What did John Henry mean?
From: Dr John

I heard somewhere where the shaker actually sat with the steel between his legs and held it with some sort of grip. I guess his life insurance was pretty expensive!

09 Mar 99 - 01:32 PM (#62094)
Subject: RE: What did John Henry mean?
From: dick greenhaus

If you can't visualize this, go to your local hardware store and ask to see a star drill.

And, having used one, I'd say that a nine-pound hammer is impressive enough, considering that ol' JH was swinging it horizontally and couldn't really use the hammer's weight to help as would be the case in,say, driving spikes.

09 Mar 99 - 02:09 PM (#62095)
Subject: RE: What did John Henry mean?
From: Allan C.

Sometimes there was a short rod with a loop at the end of it, through which the shaft of the drill was fitted. This enabled the shaker to put a little more distance between himself and the blow of the hammer. The shaker still had to keep one hand on the drill shaft in order to keep the drill from bouncing away from the mark or out of the hole being drilled. The shaker would also have to grasp the shaft of the drill and turn it from time to time in order to drill more efficiently. While he was turning the drill, he would also shake it to loosen chunks of rock which might have become wedged in the grooves of the business end of the drill. I suspect that the use of the looped rod device was also looked upon as being used by only timid "unmanly" shakers and was also likely an affront to the abilities of the "driver" (hammer man). I wish I could cite the source of this information. I believe it may have been a footnote to a similar song in one of the E. B. Botkin series of books.

10 Mar 99 - 02:59 AM (#62201)
Subject: RE: What did John Henry mean?
From: --seed

According to the Lomaxes, there was a real John Henry who actually beat a steam drill, in a race in the Big Bend Tunnel on the C&O line. And he wasn't swinging horizontally, 'cause he was swinging a 9 pound hammer in each hand. Not only did he win the race, he lived to brag about it. At least this is as I remember it from The Folk Songs of North America. Alan Lomax, in his American Folk Songs doesn't repeat the bit about John Henry's survival or the two-hammer detail. I can't find my copy of the older book right now, so I can't find the exact quote. --seed

10 Mar 99 - 01:20 PM (#62249)
Subject: RE: What did John Henry mean?
From: Bert

Speaking as someone who has swung (or thrown) a hammer for a living: I think that there is some misunderstanding about 'swinging a 9 pound hammer in each hand'. This would not be possible if you were swinging a hammer properly. I suspect that John Henry was good enough to be able to swing a hammer both right and left handed, most hammer men are, but not BOTH at the same time.

'Cos here's how you throw a hammer (right handed).

You take the free end of the shaft in your left hand and hold the other end of the shaft with your hand right up against the head.
You position your feet correctly. Note that the motion starts at your feet, not your hips. Your ankles actually twist first, then your knees, hips, shoulders, arms and finally your wrists. It's a full body workout.
You literally 'throw' the hammer head at the target, as it moves you allow your right hand to slide down the shaft so at the moment of impact your two hands are together at the end of the shaft.
As the hammer rebounds, you slide your right hand back along the shaft to catch the hammer head.
Swinging horizontally is not a problem. You just raise the head a little above the target before you throw it.
It takes a bit more practice to swing the hammer left handed but the principle is the same.
Also, (like singing) it takes ALL of your concentration, and breath, to swing a hammer properly. So when you see someone singing AND swinging a hammer, they can be doing neither properly.

The hammer shaft, of course, must be kept perfectly smooth. A lot of hammer men keep a piece or two of broken glass handy so that they can smooth their hammer shaft.


10 Mar 99 - 01:40 PM (#62254)
Subject: RE: What did John Henry mean?
From: catspaw49

Geez Bert, I'm getting real hot here...I keep thing you're describing something else.


10 Mar 99 - 01:45 PM (#62258)
Subject: RE: What did John Henry mean?
From: Bert

Yeah, I had to be quite careful there in a couple of places.

Now that doesn't sound quite right either. I think I'm setting myself up for Art to chip in with something about condoms.


10 Mar 99 - 01:59 PM (#62265)
Subject: RE: What did John Henry mean?
From: j0_77

I realize this is late on the topic but as I recall driving a steel with a (sledge for those over the pond)hammer - is easier and much more effective if done in this way. LIFT the hammer up then simply allow it to fall onto the end of the steel. I know some you guys will disagree but after you've done 4 hrs of a 10 hour shift - you may be glad you read ma posting.

10 Mar 99 - 02:15 PM (#62271)
Subject: RE: What did John Henry mean?
From: dick greenhaus

Jo77- True, but very difficult to drive a horizontal bore hole for blasting that way. Especially from the hips on down.

That was a tunnel they were working on

10 Mar 99 - 02:31 PM (#62275)
Subject: RE: What did John Henry mean?
From: Bert

Even striking vertically, the extra effort involved in throwing the hammer down, is more than repaid by the extra kinetic energy it gives.

The objective is to get the maximimum work from the minimum effort. The maximum work is achieved by moving the hammer as fast as possible.
It requires practice to balance just how much energy you are going to use to 'throw' the hammer and still be able to keep working all day long, day after day.

It also depends just what you are doing with the hammer and how big it is. Some jobs need a light blow and you would use say a seven pounder. In really extreme cases you could use a 'Mundy' hammer which weighs 28 pounds. Although you couldn't swing that puppy all day, It's most common use is for heavy 'dead' blows. With a dead blow you hold both hands still on the shaft and don't get nearly as much power but more direction and control.

A good hammer man can get as much from a seven pounder as a tyro might from a fourteen pounder.


10 Mar 99 - 04:13 PM (#62285)
Subject: RE: What did John Henry mean?
From: Pete M

I've never done it for a living, but Bert's empirical experience is supported by the mathematics, the speed of the hammer head is more important than the weight. Similarly when hitting a minimally compressible material (rock) via an elastic intermediate, (steel drill) a significant portion of the KE will be transferred to the rebound, minimising the effort required to lift the hammer for the next blow. Both are minimised if you simply allow the hammer to drop. So, in 'throwing' the hammer, you are not only more effective, but, providing you time the "throw" correctly as Bert notes, you use less energy not more.

And as Dick notes, if you are driving horizontally you don't have a choice.

Pete M

11 Mar 99 - 12:26 AM (#62354)
Subject: RE: What did John Henry mean?
From: j0_77

Hmmm fascinating - welll agreed if the steel is horizontal one 'might' throw the hammer in the same plane - 'but' you don't gotter do it that way. Arc ? A mechanical hammer works like this - the air / solenoid pushes the 'heavy' casing out - gravity causes it to recoil back. In situations where the 'job' is horizontal the operator has to lean against the hammer handle to create a force sufficient to 'bore/drill' etc., Now if the hammer did force a recoil - all that it would achieve is a jumping motion so it's back to the drawing board. Pulling on the handle of the hammer adds very little 'in my opinion' to the work done at impact. Analysis of the physics USING Newton's model simply begs the question. There is a great deal more happening in these phenomena than Newton ever dreamed. It is simply dumb to add 'KE' to the hammer head in most cases for reasons already listed above. You waste your energy on making a louder sound - etc... Also sometines all it achieves is to compress the steel and make it heat up. Because we are here talking about the real world and not some mathmatical model, everything is 'probably' true and in these cases there are 'limits' within which these conditions yeild the most efficient result. Simply a 20lbs hammer may not be the best because it is 'bouncing' off the job. A 30lb may be too heavy because it is compressing the steel. The ideal wt may be 25lbs for example and only if that is dropped! not thrown - To throw a 15lb hammer to consistently get the effect of the 25lb is both very difficult and tiring. Why bother when you could use the 25lb.

11 Mar 99 - 09:37 AM (#62415)
Subject: RE: What did John Henry mean?
From: Bert

Hmmm.. What to say???

It's sometimes difficult to describe a skill in words. Remember that German in "Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines" who was trying to fly a plane by reading the book. It didn't work did it?

Although it can theoretically be described in engineering terms, the real action can't be fully appreciated like that.
Think of it more like dancing than like physics, it's a rhythmic movement process. There's more comes into it than just the process, it's often a matter of just 'how' the head hits the target. Also 'what' the target is plays an important part, not so important with John Henry because his target was always the drill. But if you're working steel then the exact placement of every blow is just as important in determining how much effort is needed.
Each blow is different and you adjust your speed without breaking your rhythm. I know it doesn't sound logical but drop by and I'll show you how.


11 Mar 99 - 02:17 PM (#62455)
Subject: RE: What did John Henry mean?
From: j0_77


12 Mar 99 - 08:14 AM (#62597)
Subject: RE: What did John Henry mean?
From: Allan C.

Oops. I just realized that in my note above I gave credit (such as it was) to "B. A. Botkin". The man's name was E. A. Botkin.

I think I know what you mean, Bert. When driving steel or even pounding a peg into the ground, the length of the arc lengthens as the visible part of the hammered item shortens. This requires constant minute adjustments in the swing as well as in foot position. After much time doing this a certain sense is acquired after which such changes become automatic.

Like so many kinds of work, there's a whole lot more to it than you would think!

And thanks anyway for the invitation to see how it is done; but anymore, even watching other people work sorta wears me out.

And Terry, did you ever dream that your question would open such a wonderful "can of worms"? I don't know of any other place you could find where the meaning of specific lyrics is examined so thoroughly.

10 May 03 - 07:50 PM (#950203)
Subject: RE: What did John Henry mean?
From: GUEST,John Garst

Possibly relevant to this discussion.

If the Alabama witnesses to John Henry are correct, he was not an unusually large man. Quite the contrary, he appears to have been rather short. One person said that he weighed about 150 lb but I think that must be an underestimate. I imagine 5'8" and 165 lb myself. That weight is pure speculation, of course, but several witnesses agree that he was not large.

It is said that he entered steel driving contests and always won.

If this is true, then it may demonstrate that steel driving is more a matter of technique, and perhaps strength and endurance, than size.

10 May 03 - 08:44 PM (#950230)
Subject: RE: What did John Henry mean?
From: smokeyjoe

Y'all should read 'John Henry Days' by Colson Whitehead. Although fictional, he has certainly done his homework researchng the John Henry myth, and describing the technique of 'steel drivin''. One other thing to add to all you brains out there when 'yer figgyurin'out yer' hammerin' math: Don't forget that those handles flexed, making that ol' head snap like a whip. Steel drivers used to 'bone' (much the same as old time baseball players used to do to their bats) the handles of their hammers to supposedly make them last longer. I can't say that I can see that it would really work, but it adds to the lore of a trade ofold.......

11 May 03 - 05:35 PM (#950651)
Subject: RE: What did John Henry mean?
From: leprechaun

It's enough to make you wish you'd stayed in school.

11 May 03 - 06:13 PM (#950668)
Subject: RE: What did John Henry mean?
From: Rapparee

'Way, 'way back when, when I was making tombstones, we would sometimes have to put holes in granite or marble the old-fashioned way -- by hand. Granted, we used hand-held hammers, but the principles would seem to be the same.

The drill was turned for several reasons, one of which was to even the wear on the drill points and thereby make it last longer between sharpenings. You held the drill, hit it, turned it about 1/4 turn, hit it again, and so on. Marble would cut like butter -- it's considered a "soft" rock -- but putting a hole in an eight-inch thick piece of granite could use up four or five drills (granite varies in hardness).    I never saw a hole drilled by hand in a small, closely grained granite like Swedish Black, but I suspect that it would be a chore for the best of 'em.

Nope, Lep, I learned. I stayed in school as long as I could. Hard work makes me break out in hives and a cold sweat.

12 May 03 - 03:03 PM (#951192)
Subject: RE: What did John Henry mean?
From: GUEST,HughM

Around 1960 on the radio in Britain there was a children's programme called "Songs and Stories of the American Railroad". One of the songs dealt with was John Henry. If I remember rightly,the narrator said that John Henry claimed that he could drill faster than the newly-invented steam drill, and a contest was arranged between them. John Henry won, having drilled two holes totalling fifteen feet when the steam drill had only drilled nine. However, John collapsed and died almost immediately afterwards.

12 May 03 - 03:27 PM (#951213)
Subject: RE: What did John Henry mean?
From: Art Thieme

Alan C,

You were right the first time. He was B. A. Botkin --- and he was at one time the head of the Archive Of Folksong at the Library Of Congress in Washington D.C..

Us kids used to sing----

"B. A., B. A. Botkin,
Have you any folklore?"

The real skinny on this is that the guys with the hammers always worked with old widdow women holding the steel drill bit. And these woman were all mambers of the religious sect knpown as The Shakers. They always sang "Simple Gifts" as they held the drill and 'shook' with fear. They also prayed aloud that they'd not get killed. Being a celebate sect, and because they were in a precarious position doing this work, there are no Shakers left now, alas, "to tell the tale"---as Ishmael said in the bottom line of Moby Dick.

This was an inspringly strange chapter of American history.

Art Thieme

12 May 03 - 04:58 PM (#951270)
Subject: RE: What did John Henry mean?

Rapaire: Small world, isn't it? I'm also a stone cutter, though I do this very infrequently. I do a lot of wood cutting. John (Fud) Benson taught me all I know about both crafts. All of my ventures into stone cutting have been with "Virginia Slate" except once with marble. I agree, marble cuts like warm butter. I've only done one tombstone and that was when my best friend died and his family couldn't afford a gravestone.
In any case, I'm sure you know that the drawing is the most difficult part of stone cutting. Fud said, "Knsowing where to put the letters is the real trick in being a stone cutter". (or wood cutter) I've never drilled a hole in stone for powder charges, nor used a star drill for any purpose. The only stone cutting I've done was cutting letters and numbers into the face of a piece of stone using a carbide tipped stone chisel and a zink mallet. Oh yes, I've done three or four compass roses and a seven pointed star.
Leadbelly said that John Henry did use both hands.

I've done a couple of lobsters, a loaf of bread, two shamrocks and two horses pulling a fire engine in Honduras Mahogany

17 Nov 04 - 08:27 PM (#1330576)
Subject: RE: What did John Henry mean?
From: GUEST,scott bowman

What does any of this have to do with CHarlie Bowman???

17 Nov 04 - 08:50 PM (#1330596)
Subject: RE: What did John Henry mean?
From: Leadfingers

GUEST , scott bowman = IF you want to sing a song and give it what it needs , the more background information you have , the easier this is . Of course ,if all you want is to know the words and the tune , fair enough , but you will never bring a song to life without the background to it !

18 Nov 04 - 12:42 AM (#1330768)
Subject: RE: What did John Henry mean?
From: Q (Frank Staplin)

The word 'shaker' has been used by railroad gangs for many years, but it is not yet included in Webster's Collegiate.
Here is a little 'nine-pound hammer verse:

If I die a railroad man,
Go bury me under the sand,
With a pick and shovel at my head and feet,
And a nine-pound hammer in my hand.

Anon., obtained in Knott County, KY. J. H. Cox, 1925, "Folk Songs of the South," John Hardy, version H, pp. 185-186. Many of the versions collected in 1909-1920 are in MS or hard-to-get journals.