I Pulled Into Nazareth

Take a load off, Fanny.

March 10th, 2016: my doctor called the very afternoon of my check-up to tell me my cholesterol levels were very high, higher than the last time I was in.  He asked what I wanted to do about that.  "Diet and exercise, I guess?"  Was there a history of heart attack in the family?  "No."  So you want to…?  "Change how I'm eating, get active.  I don't want to take a pill.  Pills have side effects."  And we check in another six months, the doctor told me, making no attempt to mask his doubt.

So skip ahead to now.  I have lost 76 pounds as of this writing
Brian's lunch — photograph by T. Douche
, for an average of about 2.5 pounds a week. A lot of this was an initial drop, and some say men lose weight more quickly/easily/temporarily than women, but it has also taken dedication and willpower and concerted change.  Though maybe less of that stuff than you'd think, and more the regulation of good choices in order to avoid bad choices, and over time the replacement of poor habits with better ones.

This is not the first time I've worked at losing weight, though I think this is the longest I've sustained the effort.  It's also been a lot easier this time around.

Because a few people have asked what I'm doing, I thought this might be a good place for confession and proselytization.   What follows are some basic tenets I applied from the outset and some rules I established for myself early on.  (And as you'll see, I trust journalists more than nutritional scientists, but I suppose I'm genealogically so disposed. Unlike quacks, journalists are fact-checked.)


  1. If I was going to lose weight, it had to be permanent this time.  Losing weight makes regaining weight easier, and in fact leads often to gaining even more weight than you originally had to lose.  So I needed to think of this effort as a permanent change in lifestyle.
      According to the dismal science of weight loss, only 1% of dieters achieve permanent weight loss, and 41% of dieters gain back more than they lost.  This suggests vigilance and permanence, and a willingness to do what 99% of dieters can't do.  (Sciences suggests that your body reacts to a change in calorie intake as if its starvation, dropping your metabolic rate and increasing chemicals related to hunger. Fat cells don't fall off with the pounds — they just empty out, waiting to be refilled.)

  2. I would not go to the gym.  Maybe this seems in opposition to the prior tenet, but my experience is that you can start going to the gym at any time, and you can stop going to the gym at any time.  If this was going to be a permanent change, I also had to admit to myself that there is that within me which is indolent, shiftless, and lazy.  I can find ways to justify not going to the gym today — too busy, too tired, will go tomorrow — and that can lead into justifying other bad choices.
      And as a corollary to the note on Tenet 1 above, it seems to me from what little we understand about what once-fat bodies do, elevating the amount of physical activity that my body does only to stop that activity was a bad idea.  Again, the idea would be to make permanent and sustainable changes to how I lived.  Crushing reps at the gym was not a realistic expectation I could have of myself.  (The above is not to say that I don't aim to be more active than before, but I have always been the indoors type.  The Lemonheads: "I can't go away with you on a rock-climbing weekend / What if something's on TV and it's never shown again?")  I would increase activity, walk when I can, but most of the change in my daily caloric totals would need to come from what I was eating.
  3. There were going to be things I would need to give up for good, and there were going to be things I knew I could not live without, and so I was going to need to change my relationship with food.  The first narrative thought I can recall after speaking with my doctor and pledging to better health was, "Can I go the rest of my life without french fries?"  And I decided that I could.  I could not go the rest of my life without ice cream, though, and it was unlikely that I could avoid pizza forever.  So I would need strategies for those things.
    Logically slim
      In fancier words: I had cause to develop a higher-order volition. A first order volition might be a desire to eat the whole pint of Ben and Jerry's Coconut for Caramel Core ice cream*. A second order volition would be to want to eat that pint, but also a want to NOT eat it.  Free will (at least according to Harry Frankfurt) is the exertion of self-control.  Each moment is a choice, no matter whose birthday it is and how good the cake may be.  The cake is a lie.  Cheat days = hyperbolic discounting.  I would change my life (and waistline) through logic.  (I mean, have you ever seen a fat Vulcan?)


  1. Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.  Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food lays this out as a cardinal rule, along with warnings about "nutritionism." Pollen suggests you resist the idea that the healthfulness of food can be isolated into a particular nutrient ("fiber" or "Omega 3 fatty acids" or "essential vitamins") and instituted into processed food that could be somehow good for you.  Communities all over the world sustained themselves on vastly different diets — the Mediterranean folks ate one way, Eskimos another — and that the only unhealthful diet is the Western one (the Standard American Diet, or SAD):  processed food, high sugars, and government nutrition pyramids.  According to Pollan, if it grows from a seed and people eat it, it's probably good for you. If it's a thing that ate stuff that grew from seeds and people also eat THAT thing, it's also good for you (and also probably an animal, in which case see others of Pollan's books.)
  2. If you can eat it quickly, it's probably not a good choice. David A. Kessler explains in his book The End of Overeating that most processed foods are chemically designed to be appealing to us through salt, sugar, fat, but that most have also been designed to eat very quickly so that you consume more than you might intend.  Kessler points out that even things like a chain-restaurant chicken dish probably uses engineered, processed and reconstituted chicken, free of anything like bones or connective tissue — all in order to reduce the work necessary to eat it, and to increase its potential for pleasure.  In a sense, processed food has been partially pre-digested — that Snickers bar has been designed to get its caramel/chocolate/nougat/peanuts into your gullet without sticking to your teeth all while being marketed as if it were energizing trail mix.  Pizza is gooey/salty/melty and really easy to pick up right out of the box and shove into your face hole.  From Kessler, I take it that if you're not making it yourself, it's pretty much coming from Pre-Chewed Charlie's.
  3. Plan meals, shop accordingly. If you know what you're going to have for dinner, and if you know you're going to cook it yourself, it becomes a lot harder to go off track or to make bad/lazy decisions.  I've been cooking dinner 5-6 nights out of 7 for the last 6 months, and I've only few occasions to think of other things I might rather be eating.  You eliminate the option of takeout or frozen pizzas or whatever else, because you need to make the thing you said you were going to make.
    And if it's a good really plan, you need to make the thing because part of the thing you need for tomorrow's meal, so staying on track today helps you stay on track tomorrow.  My wife found a subscription plan that's worked really well for us — thefresh20.com — that gives you a weekly shopping list of 20 items and 5 dinner recipes that use (and re-use) those items.  Use of things like flour and sugar and dairy are kept to a minimum, and there are entirely gluten-free or paleo options available.  Even better, ingredients cooked or prepped for one-meal are used in meals later in the week, so skipping a night of cooking means you're handicapping yourself for later meals in the week.  (See again the notion of hyperbolic discounting!)
  4. Track what you eat. Like the previous 3 rules, this is a mindfulness trick.  Logging what you're eat (or even better, what you're going to eat) means you're paying attention to what and how much you're eating, which makes it more likely that you stick to serving sizes, healthier decisions, and your other rules.  I use a free IOS app-slash-website called Lose It!. (Truth be told, I've skipped tracking for the last few months once I felt I had good habits in place, though its probably not entirely coincidental that my rate of loss has slowed since I got out of a tracking routine.)
  5. Drink water.  Humans aren't really all that great at reading signals in our bodies.  Often, we feel hunger as a symptom of dehydration, so drinking more water will make eating less a bit easier. For me, this meant detoxing from diet soda.  (There are studies that suggest that imitation sugars in diet sodas can make your body crave carbs, and others suggest that our bodies don't process imitation sugar any differently from actual sugar.)  Prior to starting this effort, diet soda was a twice daily thing for me, and I quickly limited myself to no more than 12 ounces of it per day.  Even that has fallen away — I drink hella sparkling water or tap water now, and haven't had anything artificially sweetened in months.  (And learn to take coffee black, too.)
  6. Raw fruits and vegetables only between breakfast and dinner.  Thaler and Sunstein's Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness introduced me to t
    he notion of choice architecture — using behavioral economics to lead people into better choices. If I allowed myself only to eat whole fruits (or now and then, a salad) at lunch time, I wouldn't have to decide whether or not to eat healthily at the moment I was hungry.  Our campus student union, which is the nearest place where I can find lunch, is relatively light (and samey) on its healthy options.  As to prior habits: the bags of chips sold in the Union are chosen by its buyers to maximize their profits from student and staff wallets rather than to encourage good health — a nudge but in the wrong direction.  Sure, one could read the bag and reason out that the serving size for Cheddar and Sour Cream Flavored Ruffles is 28 grams or 11 chips, with the bag containing four times its 160 calories, and one could respond with moderation and restraint.  But most times, you (or leastways I) will eat until the bag is empty. So just don't buy the f*cking thing, and let the student union make a couple of bucks less each day than it might if it sold green apples and nectarines.
  7. Avoid seconds. Pollen's book points out that the so-called French Paradox — where the French eat rich foods and drink wine and still manage to look good in culottes — may be partly due to their cultural taboo on getting seconds.  Probably, if you are serving yourself, you are instinctively/unconsciously putting on your plate the amount of food you need to satisfy you.  (Not true, usually, in restaurants.)  Going back to the buffet isn't necessary.  If you give your body 10 minutes for your brain to assess what your body actually needs, you'll probably find you don't actually need any more than you've already eaten.
  8. Follow serving sizes and exercise restraint.  As I mentioned above, there was no way I was going to live without ice cream, particularly when there are flavors of Ben and Jerry's out there to be tried and tested.  I allowed myself ice cream once a week — on Sundays, for Walking Dead or Game of Thrones — but I stick to a half-cup serving, measured out to the gram.  Once a week, if I feel like it, or not at all, if I don't.  See the bit on second-order reasoning, above, and consider that losing one pound means taking in about 3,500 calories less than your body needs to maintain its current weight.  Add a half-cup of ice cream to that, and you're now about 3,750 calories from losing that pound.
  9. Remove yourself from temptations. Family gatherings almost always seem to involve dessert — cake for a birthday, ice cream because ice cream.  This is always a particularly hard time for me, as watching people really enjoy food (and talk about how much they're really enjoying the food) is kind of a drag when you know that if your enjoyment of that same food would come at a heavy cost (because you're in a bodily state where your metabolism is under-functioning and your hunger-sensing brain chemicals are over-functioning). One starts thinking of the injustice of it all, and feeling like cake is something one deserves, and maybe you even deserve it more than these people who are right now actively having their cake and also eating it, and so now you're annoyed and slighted and suddenly having the kind of relationship with food that you said you weren't going to have anymore, and… better to just go in the other room or take a walk or start doing the dishes if they'll let you.
  10. Get a little obsessed (but keep it to yourself).  A little obsession is good
    nourishment for the brain, I think.  Getting a little obsessed with being healthier can't be too bad, as you read stuff and break habits and walk a little further and figure out to make kale into something palatable for humans.  The danger is talking too much about it with people who you'll almost certainly bore — they aren't in the same place as you, since they don't need to make these changes or at least aren't making them.  And talking about better health means you're going to end up talking about food which, as in the point above, isn't particularly helpful when you're trying not to think about food.  It still frames the issue, as George Lakoff would tell you. So shut up about it.  Or get a blog and write it down there, and then don't worry that there's now way anyone's going to read all this stuff.  Because it's your issue, dummy.


* I sent my wife a message saying that I was, immediately, making some changes to how I ate.  Her initial response was a link to an article about new ice cream flavors and a link to where to buy them locally.

Since then, I can tell you that she's been incredibly supportive and involved, and has suggested some stuff that is adapted into the above.  But its a good reminder that sometimes the train has to leave the station whether everyone's on it or not — some folks may jump on board down the tracks a ways, as K. did a couple weeks later.


Counting the Cars on the New Jersey Turnpike

Most nights, I read to my kids at bedtime.  Because they are ten-year-old twins with separate and competing interests, I have to read them separate things — usually a sports book for Caleb and some sort of adventure book for Sam.  We've read all the Harry Potters, George Vecsey's Baseball: A History of America's Favorite Game, most of the Star Wars novelizations, The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron by Howard Bryant, Colin Meloy's Wildwood series, and the very weird-but-cool FreeDarko Presents the Undisputed Guide to Pro-Basketball History.

Last year, I also folded in James West Davidson's A Little History of the United States, in part because the Jim Crow chapters of Bryant's stirring biography of Hank Aaron raised a lot of questions for the kids about issues of race in American history.  It's a lovely book, with the kind of economy of language and story-telling that would allow someone to compress 500+ years of North American history into about 300 pages.  It begins with the soaring birds seen by Columbus as he approached the continent in 1492 and ends with the dying birds seen by Rachel Carson in 1962, though the book reaches back further than Columbus and farther than Carson in between.  It's even-handed, throughout, with particular attention to the twinned (and also separate and competing) American values of "freedom" and "equality"— as excellent an introductory history for kids as any I could imagine.  It was a pleasure to read aloud — I felt, at times, like David McCullough narrating PBS' American Experience.

We didn't get to Davidson every night, or even most nights, because we could only read it once the other two chapter books had seen fair representation AND if both kids were still awake.  But when we at last came to the fortieth and final chapter last night, it was hard not to reflect on what was happening concurrently at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, on the divisiveness and hate-mongering at last week's Republican convention, and on the opposition to America's first African-American presidency.  In a final look at lingering conflicts from our national history, Davidson writes:
Puritans dreamed of a holy commonwealth where the saints would rule and the strangers in their midst would learn righteousness.  Jonathan Edwards saw the Great Awakening as the first fruit of “those glorious times” predicted in scripture, when divisions and conflicts would disappear.  These dreams of unity and harmony have propelled the peoples of America for centuries.

But the divisions didn’t disappear.  Madison thought long and hard about that problem as he worked on the Constitution.  A republic would always have divisions, he decided – factions, he called them. And they arose not just because people came from different parts of the world.  The causes of faction were “sown in the nature of man.”  Humans make mistakes in reasoning things out.  Their passions are easily aroused.  They are influenced by “self-love,” which blinds them to the viewpoints of others.  More important, people naturally divide because of their different circumstances in life.  Most often, said Madison, divisions arise because of “the various and unequal distribution of property.” . . . It was wishful thinking to believe that humans would ever find a golden age so gentle, a millennium so peaceful, or a commonwealth so holy that disagreements would disappear.  Or, as Madison put it, no government would ever manage to give “every citizen the same opinions, the same passions and the same interests.”

No, if there was to be a “more perfect union” binding together the people and provinces of the United States, it would have to come from crafting a government that allowed factions to work out their different interests – through debate, through a fair system of representation, through compromise, through laws passed.
This is the kind of government I believe in — the kind that does what private citizens can't be trusted to do, because of our self-love and our factionalism, and the kind that engages in debate and compromise.  The young woman I saw on cable news last night who displayed her Bernie Sanders tattoo and said she could vote for no one else is given over to self-love and factionalism, and I don't think you could find a better illustration of blinding "self-love" than the RNC's candidate, whose name is his brand and vice versa. Actual debate, meanwhile, doesn't really happen — the Republican-led senate has been avoiding it for years, and we're all well settled into our
own closed-system modes of news delivery.  I'm in the MSNBC faction, and the NPR/NYTimes faction.  I'm sure I know at least a couple of people who are at least considering voting for Trump, but they aren't people with whom I ever talk politics.  Or anything, much.  I certainly know people who are considering voting for Green Party candidates (something I did myself in 2000) or perhaps not voting, because Hilary's centrist/hawkish/corporatist past isn't something they feel deserves compromise or concession.
Sam, Caleb, and a friend watch the July 3 fireworks at the lakefront.
I fervently hope that Secretary Clinton's campaign will reach out to Senator Sanders' faction through debate, representation, and compromise, and not only to make those voters feel they can come into the larger tent despite the seriousness of their tattoos and convictions.

The Beckum Little League All-Stars take the field following a summer storm


The Tigers Have Spoken

As reported in the New York Times, national corespondent for The Atlantic and National Book Award nominee Ta-Nehesi Coates is writing an upcoming 12-issue run of Marvel's Black Panther.  We've given Matrix Jedi, Elvis Costello doppleganger, and esteemed professor Dr. Cornel West, an outspoken critic of Coates, an opportunity to preview some of the early issues:

Brother Coates’ new issues of Black Panther are full of BAM and POW, but they hardly measure up to James Baldwin’s historic run on the comic back in the Mighty Marching Marvel Society days of the salubrious seventies.  Baldwin’s excoriation of the exploitive American eye towards brother T’Challa’s native Wakanda and the imperialist strip mining of its vibranium resouces led to collective action, and may even have inspired the organization that came to share the hero’s name.  Coates’ Panther, meanwhile, makes no critique of the Black president in power, or the rampant capitalist wage inequity evident in the disparity between the tony Starks and the proletariat Parkers.  He hasn’t familiarized himself with our hero brethren who have struggled alongside us: Black Goliath, Black Lightning, Black Talon, Black Manta, Black Vulcan, black Power Man, and (somehow) the Bronze Tiger.  Until he’s studied these afro’d and afro-centric heroes of the four-color struggle, Coates will remain a mere darling of Stan Lee-liberals and jackbooted Kirbyism.  Also, as brother Jonathan Lethem proved with his 2007 attempted revival of Omega the Unknown, no one wants this shit.  Finally, in what can be attributed only to Coates' youth and an unwillingness to examine our era's omnipresent neocon ogliarchy, brother Ta-Nehesi completely misunderstands the villain he employs against brother T'Challa.  As any scholar must recognize, Klaw lost his powers in a fight with Carnage in Amazing Spider Man #676, but here he appears again as a bigoted imperialist with a vibranium-powered sonic laser rather than as a being of pure sound as he’s appeared since his fight in Dazzler #11.  Please send my no-prize to the efficiency apartment I'm sharing with John Edwards in Topeka, KS.


North American Anthology
of Pop Music Literature

Four:  "When They Ring Those Golden Bells," (Trad.)

Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clements
You owe me five farthings
Say the bells of St. Martin's
From a traditional English children's rhyme first printed in Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book, circa 1744. The tune of this rhyme is meant to be reminiscent of change ringing (which, per Wikipedia, is the art of ringing a set of tuned bells in a series of mathematical patterns.  That is, the sound of St. Clements' bells make the sound of the words "oranges and lemons."
Throw the vandals in court
Say the bells of Newport
All will be well if-if-if
Cry the green bells of Cardiff
Why so worried, sisters, why?
Sang the silver bells of Wye
And what will you give me?
Say the sad bells of Rhymney
Pete Seeger's folk song, "The Bells of Rhymney," utilized part of a 1938 poem by Welsh poet Idris Davies. That poem, "Gwalia Deserta," dealt with a Welsh coal mining disaster and a failed 1926 general strike. The poem moves the bells of London to South Wales.
You owe me a move
Say the bells of St. Groove
Come on and show me
Say the bells of old Bowie
When I am fitter
Say the bells of Gary Glitter
No one but you and I
Say the bells of Prince Far-I
The Clash's "Clash City Rockers" bases part of their song on these prior two, appointing the status of august old church bells to Birmingham's The Move and Australia's The Groove, as well as David Bowie, future pederast Gary Glitter, and the Jamaican deejay Prince-Far-I.  (Tommy Thumb: You ain't happy less you got one.) Some say this song borrows a guitar riff from The Who's "I Can't Explain."
Cause it ain't the glory days
With Bruce Springsteen
I'm not a virgin so I know
I'll make Madonna scream
You hate Michael and Prince
All the way, ever since
If their beats were made of meat
Then they would have to be mince
Rock the bells
Unless you were to find the 12" extended single version of this song, which emerged on Def Jam in 1985, you wouldn't actually hear any bells on LL Cool J's "Rock The Bells."
Ring them bells, ye heathen
From the city that dreams
Ring them bells from the sanctuaries
Cross the valleys and streams
For they're deep and they're wide
And the world on its side
And time is running backwards
And so is the bride.
Bob Dylan's "Ring Them Bells" appears on his 1989 record Oh Mercy, following his born again period.  Dylan told the New Yorker in 1997: "Here's the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don't find it anywhere else. Songs like 'Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain' or 'I Saw the Light'—that's my religion. I don't adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I've learned more from the songs than I've learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs."


North American Anthology
of Pop Music Literature

Three:  John Henry and John Hurt

John Henry was a steel-drivin' man, swinging his nine-pound hammer to clear the C&O Railway's Big Bend Tunnel near Talcott, West Virginia.  Henry drove steel drills into the rock-side, making the holes for the explosives that will later blast that rock away.  In 1872, with work on the tunnel nearly completed, an agent for a steam drill company brought a drill to the tunnel for demonstration purposes.  John Henry took a lot of pride in his work and didn't care to have that machine taking the work of men like him.  A contest was set up between the steam drill and John Henry, a contest that lasted a day and a half.  John Henry had outpaced that steam drill, but it cost him his life.

Furry Lewis, "John Henry," recorded for Vocalion Records in Chicago, IL, 1927. 

But also: John Henry was prisoner #497 at the Virginia penitentiary, on work-release for the C&O, working beside the steam drills on the Lewis Tunnel that was underway near Millboro, VA, in 1873.  Henry swung his hammer so fast and powerful, the men of the line organized a race between the man and their best steam drill.  When he died in 1873-- his hammer in his hands -- he was buried in the sand along the rail lines running behind the prison.

Or even still: John Henry was born a slave in 1850, to P.A.L Dabney of Georgia.  Danny's son went on to be chief engineer for the C&W Railway, and John Henry went along as a freedman to work the Oak Mountain Tunnel near Leeds, AL, in 1887.  There, he was challenged to see if he could beat that ol' steam drill, and by now you know the rest of it.

John Henry, one of these men or none of them, becomes a story passed through folk tales and songs, something born native to this country, invested with a full history of slavery and conscription and labor, American exceptionalism in overalls.  A tale becomes a legend becomes a metaphor, eclipsing any attempt at biography.  A man ain't nothin' but a man, poor boy.

John Smith Hurt was born on July 3, 1893, or he was born on March 8, 1892.  He lived in rural Mississippi, where he taught himself to play guitar in a finger-picked style that syncopates like ragtime piano.  He worked as a farmhand put played his old-time music for house parties and country dances.  A fiddle playing friend won a contest to record for "race records" studio Okeh, and upon a recommendation, "Mississippi" John Hurt got an opportunity in 1928 to record his songs in Memphis and New York City.  He recorded 12 songs across six 78 rpm records.  They were a commercial failure -- the Great Depression soon led Okeh out of business and Hurt returned to his hometown to work as a sharecropper.

One of the songs Hurt recorded in 1928 was "Spike Driver Blues," which incorporates the legend of John Henry in both a real sense and as a kind of metaphor for what hard work's going to get you.  A spike driver sets the spikes on both sides of a rail, cementing train tracks in place, something of a different job than Henry was previously said to have. "Spike Driver Blues" and its variant, "Take This Hammer," both branch out from the tale of John Henry to something more -- reflecting on what John Henry means, perhaps.

Mississippi John Hurt, "Spike Driver Blues," Okeh Records, 1928.

In 1952, Moses Asch's Folkways records released The Anthology of American Folk Music, a collection of 1927-1932 recordings assembled by bohemian collector Harry Smith.  Included on the three LPs in the box were two songs from John Hurt, "Frankie" (which we'll discuss another day) and "Spike Driver Blues."  The Anthology birthed the great folk revival of 50's and 60's, influencing new folk artists like Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan.

A fan of the Anthology, Tom Byrd Hoskins, became determined to find out what had become of Mississippi John Hurt.   After hearing a 1928 song of Hurt's ("Avalon Blues") that contains the lyric "Avalon, my home town / always on my mind," Hoskins scoured maps of Mississippi but could not find an Avalon there.  There was an Avalon in Georgia, but no John Hurt there.  Finally, an 1895 atlas showed a little hamlet of Avalon, later incorporated into Grenada, MS.  A girlfriend volunteered a car, and in 1963 the two of them tracked him down Hurt, then 72 or 73.  Hoskins and his associates gave Hurt a guitar, arranged a new home in Washington, D.C., and drew him out into the limelight of MacDougal and Bleeker Streets, the Newport Folk Festival, and television appearances on the Tonight Show and on Pete Seeger's 1965 PBS show Rainbow Quest:

"Spike Driver Blues," Mississippi John Hurt, Rainbow Quest (TV Show), 1965.

By 1966, John Hurt was wore out, tired of the bookings and attention, and wanted to go home.  He snuck away from celebrity and, back in Avalon on November 2, 1966, he died with a hammer in his hands.

There is no beating the steam drill, is there?  John Henry may have run the race against the machine, but it cost him his life.  So: steam drill wins. On the other hand, John Henry still exists in the American folk realm, while steam drills have gone the way of dynamite, locomotives, and large public works programs.  It is not uncomplicated: bringing a black man out of obscurity to perform for white bohemians and their obsession with authenticity and old, weird America.  The hammer brings the railroad, the railroad takes the people through, tuned out to electric guitar.

Dave Van Ronk, author of The Mayor of MacDougal Street and the basis for the title character in the Coen Brother's Inside Llewyn Davis, led me to Mississippi John Hurt through his version of "Spike Driver Blues" on a 1997 tribute album to Harry Smith's Anthology.  Something about Van Ronk's Brooklyn-ish asthmatic/emphysemic wheeze makes the track stand out starkly, and in his version the lyric "This old hammer killed John Henry / But it won't kill me" sounds to my ear like: "This old hammer killed John Henry / Who killed me?"  Van Ronk died in February 2002.

"Spike Driver Blues," Dave Van Ronk, Down in Washington Square: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection, 2013