I’ll take a stab at adding to the list. When he was with the Drive-By Truckers, he wrote “The Day John Henry Died”.
I know some of you aren’t from the US, and I am not sure how much our tall tales travel beyond our borders. The old story is one that almost any elementary school kid in America knows. John Henry was born to a poor working woman with no daddy (in some stories he ran off, in others he was killed, in others imprisoned… but the father is not present). He was the stereotypical big and strong dude. His hardships growing up led to him becoming very skilled at manual labor, in fact super skilled. He was arrested for something (in most versions of the story, he was innocent but a victim of racism and the crime varies). As punishment he was put on a labor force to help build a railway. He was so great at his job that he won his freedom, but remained working at the railroad because he loved it. He got married (and in some versions, had a daughter or a mistress). One day, an industrialist built a steam powered drill that could help lay the track better than anyone. John Henry challenged the machine for his job. He wound up winning but exhausting himself and died. In some versions, John’s victory meant that the current workers kept their jobs, in others (since he was the only one that could work that well) machines replaced them all and they were fired.
Anyway, with that background, it is really cool the way Jason Isbell takes such a well-known story and draws it out giving emotional depth and societal commentary with it. He starts off with great imagery, a rainy day where most people were sitting at home “lazy like the sky”. I love the alliteration there, and the seeming tension between a sky that is both raining (active with storm clouds) and lazy. Then, in what I take as an homage to the various versions of the tall tale, he says that letters and messages were sent out recounting John’s death, but that they were filtered through “a million liars”.
The second stanza speaks about the competition. Isbell does a cool job of not demonizing the machine or industry. Instead, he takes those who in some version of the story are nothing more than industrialist devils and makes them human. He ends that stanza with “That hammer rang out through the night the day John Henry died.” In some versions of the story, you can still hear John Henry hammering at the tunnel. In others, the workers worked through the night in his honor to finish that part of the track. Regardless of which one this references, the use of audible sensory to enhance the words is great.
In the first chorus, he calls out that John didn’t know how to read, but learned how to tightly grip the hammer based on his hard life. The railroad barons held deeds tightly because that is how they made money. So again, this brings the more powerful people and John in some kind of ironic harmony. They both used what they had to make a living, and did so with success.
In the third stanza, we hear about the futility of the contest. Regardless of the outcome, the way of the world was changing. This type of labor was better suited for machinery, which made it cheaper and safer.
The second chorus, which has different words from the first, again references John’s hard life and lack of education, but also really nails down his humanity. An engine doesn’t get emotional and let that impact its work, the way it might someone who was wondering about his father.
The final stanza is really cool. To me, it kind of takes the idea that maybe if we let machines do the jobs that they do better, we, as humans, can focus on doing the other things better. A call to the working class to become more than living machines, to chase our dreams, and let the wealthy businessmen figure out how to proceed without us. The reference to John Henry Ford is well done.
This whole song has some really cool images and words. It gives you a feeling of hope even though it is about a death that ultimately resulted in the path that would have come about without the contest. And it calls to us to take advantage of industrialism and focus on becoming something more since machines (or maybe those who would sooner be machines) can do the menial tasks. We are meant for something more.
It does all this without just being a story, without being preachy, and without condemnation. Instead it offers an insight and potential moral of the story, all with that nice southern rock vibe that gives us a “poor boy” feel. It would have been easy to just make it a cry about modern machinery destroying our way of life. It would have been easy to hold John Henry up as a hero that changed the world. Instead, this leaves us thinking he was a good man and hard worker, but the world is going to change and we should adapt. A really neat twist.