When John Henry was a little baby, Sittin' on his daddy's knee. He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel and said "Goo goo gaa gaa goo goo..."*
What? He was like, six months old...
Seriously. Still an infant, not even a toddler yet. I mean, it says right there, "...was a little baby...". Babies don't talk. I mean, would you expect him to pick up the hammer and steel and say, "Why, I do believe someone has altered the molecular structure of this iron by adding carbon to it during an intense session of heating, and then melded them together by literally crushing the two elements into each other with this blunt striking object you called a hammer."
Ok, I understand artistic license. I understand the foreshadowing the author of the Ballad Of John Henry was trying to imply when they had him say "This hammer will be the death of me lord, lord." But it's not as funny. It's not accurate either. Because, really, is a baby picking up a hammer or a piece of steel? No, I doubt it. They just don't have the strength to lift that kind of weight. No, a realistic version of the song would go;
When John Henry was a little baby, sittin' on his daddy's knee. His daddy picked him up and threw him on the floor and said, "This baby done wet on me!".*
So, um...today is Monday. Made Up Monday if I were to be speaking in exacts. I am going to spin you a tale and you are going to decide if I'm lying or telling you the truth.
Today I am going to tell you the story of John Henry.
I'm sure most of you know the story, but let me summarize;
John Henry was a steel driving man. That is, he worked on the railroads as a driver. His job was to swing the hammer and drive in the spikes that held the rails in place. Or when going through a mountain, pounding the drill into the hard rock to break through and allow the railroad to pass through the mountains.
There were a lot of steel drivers on the railroad. The hammers they used were generally nine pounders. Heavy enough to get the job done, but not so heavy as to tire a man out too quickly.
John was one of the railroad workers that history has mostly forgotten. When we think of the people who built the rails, we picture laborers, usually immigrants or freed slaves who were looking for work after the civil war. And there were a lot of them.
but there were a lot of men that were forced to work on the railroads. The railroad companies would employ press gangs to 'recruit' workers when they were short handed. These gangs would go and get someone drunk, then basically kidnap them and take them to the railroad camps. There they were told to work, or walk home. And home was, oh, I don't know, maybe that way? Or maybe it was that way.
They also 'hired' convicts from prisons. By hiring I mean the went to the warden and said 'we'll give you x-dollars for every prisoner you let us use for labor.'. These funds didn't typically go into the prisons budget. And if the prisoner just so happened to be worked to death, oops.
The mortality rate on the railroads was higher than most people think. The kind of people that worked on the railroads were the kind of people that society saw as disposable at that time. They were the poorer segment of society who were trying to make a living. And if it killed them, oh well. Poor people dying wasn't something the wealthy cared about.
Labor conditions weren't what they are today, either. Most of the railroads were built before any sort of labor laws were enacted. And unions? You want to start a union? Here, do me a favor and stand next to this wall. Now, put on this blindfold while I consider your proposal to start a union. Oh, would you like a cigarette? Instead of letting you start a union, I think I'll just ready aim FIRE you.
Men worked from sun up to sun down. And they died at alarming rates to a vast array of reasons. There were accidents. Sickness was a large killer as well. Not only the normal illnesses people got like tuberculosis or dysentery, but also to things like silicosis from inhaling too much dust.
Life on the rails was not easy. And that's where we find our hero John Henry.
According to the legend, John was a small man. Oh sure, he was muscular, but height-wise, he was short. But he could swing his hammer like no man. In fact, he would swing two nine pound hammers at the same time.
As the story goes, one day John got ready to go to work when he saw a strange sight; there was some sort of new-fangled machine on the job site. The foreman told him it was a steam drill. It would drill farther and faster than any man could.
Well now, ol' John Henry didn't like hearing that. If a machine could drill faster than a man, why all the steel drivers would be out of a job! Nope, John couldn't have that. So he told the foreman he could drive steel faster than that steam drill could. And he proposed a challenge; they were preparing to begin a tunnel, and John would race the steam drill to see which one of them could finish first.
The foreman agreed, and they got ready. They lined the drill up, and John loosened up his swinging arms. The signal was given and the race began. Both the drill and John moved faster than anyone had ever seen. They made quick work of the mountain in front of them. Soon, both the racers were inside the mountain and out of sight.
Everyone ran to the other side to see who would break through first. Finally, they began to hear the sounds of rock breaking. There was the sound of hammering and pounding. But was it the steam drill or was it John?
Finally, a drill bit broke through. The hole quickly became larger and.....John Henry walked through. He had done it! John Henry had defeated the steam drill! As his fellow workers cheered, John collapsed and died. He had pushed himself too hard. He had beaten the steam drill, but it had cost him everything.
John Henry had earned himself a place in American legend next to others like Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan.
Ok. Pay attention now, because here is the part where you get to decide if I'm lying or not.
The simple fact of the matter is, the saga of John Henry isn't a legend. It's the truth. John Henry actually raced a steam engine and he actually won.
So, do I wear the halo of truth, or are my pants on fire?
I'll be back tomorrow with the answer.
* As much as I would like to, I can not take credit for either of these versions of the Saga of John Henry. They are both credited to the Smothers Brothers. I highly suggest you spend the next 8 minutes listening to their version.