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Music Monday on Wednesday: John Henry

Your Humble Blogger is back from traveling, and perhaps ready to blog again. Wouldn’t that be nice? It was a lovely trip, and I have much to say about it, but before I get to any of that, I thought I’d ask how people feel about John Henry.

Y’all know about John Henry, right? He was a steel driver for the railroad, tried to race a steam drill, and his heart burst in his chest and he died with the hammer in his hand, Lord, Lord, he died with the hammer in his hand.

And John Henry is, in a substantial sense, a hero of American Folklore. He stands for the hard working Early American, screwed by Big Business, kept poor and then worked to death. And I to believe in the dignity of Labor, and I like the idea of transmitting that via song and story, along with a healthy distrust of Big Business. And he’s one of very few dark-skinned American Heroes, so there’s that.

On the other hand, the main John Henry story is about the race with a steam drill (or steam hammer, depending), and as far as I can tell, replacing back-breaking labor in hazardous conditions with mechanized equipment is a Good Thing. Right?

The reason it comes up, other than hearing the song nearly every day (the Youngest Member is going to grow up Red, I swear he is, if he grows up at all), is that this week St. Martin’s is pushing Blue Collar, Blue Scrubs, which begins with the author’s description of throwing rocks at a construction site.

Scalese is in the concrete construction business. What we construct are mostly curbs and gutters. But before the new ones can be put in, the old ones have to be broken out. That’s where the breakout gang comes in. The gun runner breaks the old gutters into jagged, hundred-pound hunks of concrete. Then the rock thrower bends down, his face inches from the pounding jack hammer, lifts the piece, or “rock,” and throws it onto the back of a truck—rock after rock, hour after hour, day after day. Throwing rocks: the toughest job at the toughest construction company in Chicago. When people ask me what I’m doing with my Notre Dame education, and I tell them I throw rocks, they say, “Your parents must be very proud.”

The book sounds quite good, actually, but the point is that it reminded me of John Henry. Not only in that the gang take (justifiable) pride in their strength and stamina (and that they could probably work better if they were singing a work song such as, oh, “John Henry”), but in that sooner or later, it will be more efficient to have a machine do it. Well, or not; it’s plausible to me that labor will be cheaper than power again in a generation, even in America, but I don’t like to think about that.

Anyway, there was also a conversation or three over the weekend that reminded me of a conversation I had a hundred years ago or so, where I was hocking on about Labor, and somebody said that it was crazy to prevent the auto factories from using robots on the assembly lines, to force them to hire humans to work in terrible conditions when the machines were cheaper and more efficient. And I responded at the time that the problem was that if they sacked all those workers, there wasn’t anywhere for them to go, and that was worse than inefficiency on the line.

Those people died with the hammers in their hands.

Oh, they didn’t, really. They made very good money, and although their working conditions weren’t like mine, they weren’t so bad, either. And their pensions were stolen and all, which sucks, but isn’t really connected. When I say they died with their hammers in their hands, what I mean is that they, like John Henry, stuck to a job that was doomed and outmoded, and that wasn’t inherently noble (I mean, in the product, not the men), and that their battle to save their jobs did not save their jobs. That isn’t to say it was misguided. Just to say it wasn’t enough.

So I am ambivalent about celebrating John Henry at this point. I think a lot of us are, essentially, hand-driving steel at this point; we’re doing things the slow and inefficient way, and the dangerous way, too, even if it’s not going to break our hearts this week but our grandchildren’s hearts in fifty years. And we are, again, presented with Big Business saying that the way to progress is kicking labor to the gutter. And let me make that clear: I still find that unacceptable. But in John Henry’s day, they could have found other jobs for him and his brothers, so they and their wives wouldn’t work themselves to death to put dinner on the table. The choice should not have been starving themselves to death and working themselves to death. The choice in the eighties should not have been between high unemployment and beginning the death spiral of the American Auto industry.

So I want to tell the Youngest Member that if he becomes a steel-driving man, Lord, Lord, that’s fine, and all that, but John Henry didn’t have a lot of choices, and a better thing, if you can do it, is to give both John Henry and his Captain another choice.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Yeah, what you said.

Perhaps what is wanted, going to your choice idea, is a clause of the workers' contract that says that if they are replaced by machinery, well, okay, but they need to be offered schooling so that they can get a job, e.g., running the machinery. This is not necessarily to Big Business's disadvantage, either, as I can certainly imagine it being cheaper to teach one's already-proven-faithful-employees than to take the risk of hiring new upstarts. Not automating at all leads not just to unsafe inefficiency but to the possibility that Japan will automate, take all the sales, your company will go into bankruptcy, and you'll lose all your jobs anyway.

Not related to your larger points, but I hated the song John Henry when I was a kid. It was the first song that I had ever heard where someone died, and for some reason hearing it in a song was especially bad -- around the same time, I was reading lots of books where various protagonist-like characters died (often dogs... I feel like the 80's was the era of "stick in a dead dog in children's books to drive the story"), and they certainly made me cry, but didn't, for some reason, bother me nearly the same way.

It's not wrong for human beings to want a way of life that is durable.

This resonates personally for me, as I celebrated 15 years of running my business last week. The joke I've been following that with is "and I'm almost done." It's funny because the work is not about an endpoint, of course; it's about the journey. Whatever happens, I've been doing something I find satisfying for 15 years. If I can keep doing that for another 15, and then another 15, I'll die with the hammer in my hand. But even if I live until the day I can't save my job, or my business, or my profession, I'll still take pride in the work I did and the time I had. Many an auto worker has lost their job now, but their battle to save their jobs did save their jobs for many years. I hope they can also take pride in the work they did and the time they had.

It's not wrong for human beings to want a way of life that is durable.

It's certainly not wrong, but it isn't… well, I was going to say it isn't the kind of wanting that gets what it wants, although it depends on your frame for durability. I don't think that the unions were wrong at all to attempt to keep robots off the assembly lines. That was the right thing to do, given their constraints etc, and I applaud them for it. Just as I do applaud John Henry for his indomitability. Is that a word? Did I do that right? Indomitableness.

On the other hand, there's not wrong and there's better. I don't think it's wrong for human beings to want a way of life that is durable, but I think it's better for human beings to prepare for change. I think it's better for human beings to shape their ISVRs in such a way to protect themselves against their longing for durability, for changelessness, for rootedness even. Not because those are bad things, but because they are vulnerable things, and the instinct to simply protect them leads to worse things than the instinct to overcome them. I think.

The real tragedy of John Henry, it seems to me today, is that he really didn't have any better alternative than racing the steam hammer. I'm curious whether y'all sang or heard versions with a verse more or less like this one:

John Henry went upon the mountain,
Come down on the side;
The mountain so tall, John Henry was so small,
Lord, he lay down his hammer and he cried, "Oh, Lord,"
He lay down his hammer and he cried.


Huh. I always had ambivalent feelings about that song--I saw it more as a frontier-type song, about a guy's stubbornness and will overcoming impossible odds. He died for it, though, which makes it not the celebration it might have been. But I never saw it as distrust of big business or a celebration of Labor. ;) Though of course now that you have pointed it out, it does make sense.

John Henry said to the Captain,
By God, I ain't no fool.
Before I'll die with a hammer in my hand,
I'm gonna get me a steam drill too, Lord, Lord.
Get me a steam drill too.

Rephrase--it is good for people to work for a way of life that is durable. (Note that "durable" is not the same as "unchanging." Flexibility may contribute to durability as well as strength.)

Such work is harder than it should be, because market capitalism treats all things, people included, as disposable.

John Henry is a tragic hero. He is both deeply flawed and deeply admirable. His ballad speaks more to the psychological consequences of being replaced by a machine, which John Henry opposes with his whole being, than to the economic consequences. That's not to say that one shouldn't interpret the ballad in economic terms, but that is an impediment to interpreting the efforts of contemporary unions to preserve jobs in light of the ballad.

I really enjoyed reading this post. Thank you.

Good entry; good comments; no time for more, except to say that in my ideal world, people who are put out of backbreaking manual labor by machines would have real opportunities to move on to similarly satisfying and important work that doesn't gradually destroy their bodies.

But as for how to practically implement that in the real world, I have no idea.

people who are put out of backbreaking manual labor by machines would have real opportunities to move on to similarly satisfying and important work that doesn't gradually destroy their bodies.

It is my sense--although I am not in a position at the moment to back up this understanding with sources--that intensive manual labor as such is not destructive of the body, at least not until people pass middle age and recuperate more slowly. Work involving heavy equipment and industrial processes is much more likely to lead to injury and disability, whether or not the labor itself is physically grueling. If people are being physically overworked, that too is likely to lead to injury, just as much for people doing wordprocessing as for people laying rail. So I want to raise a question about the idea, if it is out there, that people are better off, healthwise, if they do not have to perform jobs that call for strenuous manual labor.

This is where that Blue Collar, Blue Scrubs book would come in handy; I have the impression from the first bit that I read that he was saying that the kind of work he was doing is not sustainable past, well, as you say, middle-age, call it forty. Not really durable, nohow. But I'm just going by impressions. Happy to have actual info.

I do think we're talking, at least mostly, about different things. It seems to me that the introduction of steam power could have made the Vanderbilts plenty rich while still making working conditions better for John Henry and not kicking him and his gang to the curb. Winning the race wasn't going to make that happen; winning the labor battles in the 80s wasn't going to make that happen, either, as it turns out. I don't know how possible it is to see in advance when you are in that sort of situation, and even if they did (John Henry or the UAW) they couldn't do anything about it without the Bosses along with them. What I would like, ideally, is for the Youngest Reader (and the Perfect Non-Reader, for that matter) to grow up to be the person who not only can see another way than the race with the steam hammer, but can persuade both sides not to have that race at all, but instead put the money and the muscle into real changes. Doesn't make much of a song, though.


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