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

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