This is the hammer that killed John Henry
But it won’t kill me,
But it won’t kill me,
But it won’t kill me
Take this hammer and carry it to my captain
Tell him I’m gone,
Won’t you tell him I’m gone
Won’t you tell him I’m gone
So go the “Spike Driver Blues” as sung by blues legend Mississippi John Hurt. It’s a song that captivates me because, like so much great folk music, its simple vignette has a constellation of stories packed between its lines, a wealth of history, and not a little wisdom. It’s a song of quiet rebellion. Have a listen.
Or (for those who can’t be bothered with Spotify)
Most Americans know the story of John Henry, the legendary African American railroad worker who was strong enough to defeat a machine, but died in the process. There are countless folk ballads, poems, and children’s books celebrating his life. Most narratives celebrate his strength, and tell the story as the tragedy of the triumph of machine over the working man, who is nevertheless an enduring hero.
Hurt’s description of events takes us in another direction. Here we seem to be hearing the account of John Henry’s death from the perspective of a partner on his spike-driving team. He sees the great man fall, his hammer “all painted in red” (his blood?), left beside the road. Does John Henry ask the narrator to take the beloved hammer to the captain as he’s dying? Maybe — but it also sounds as if the narrator is asking a third person to take his hammer to the captain, because the narrator, still standing, is leaving.
The somber lyrics and melody don’t dramatically valorize John Henry, as other songs about the steel-drivin’ man do. Instead, they explain the narrator’s decision to walk out on a deadly job.
In other words, the narrator is a quitter. What’s so rebellious about that? The notion that leaving work is valiant runs counter to the American ideals of industriousness and bootstrap pulling. We make movies about pioneers and virtuous gunfighters and heroic sheriffs. We don’t tell so many stories about people who just said No. Besides, people chose to work those jobs. John Henry is a post-slavery character who personified the pride in labor — paid labor — that was finally available to the majority of African Americans after the Civil War. Right?
Well, not quite, actually. In his 1993 book, The Land Where the Blues Was Born, Alan Lomax compellingly describes the social setting and historical context that gave rise to music like Hurt’s. After the Civil War, the Delta (where Hurt lived most of his life — he was born in 1892) was a frontier of sorts, a sprawling swampland wrestled into fertile farm country by thousands upon thousands of freed slaves and their descendants who had nowhere to run and no other way to live. Making the soggy Mississippi flood plain inhabitable meant the massive moving of earth to build and maintain hundreds of miles of levees, and it took the running of steamboats, the building of networks of railroads that reached from the cotton fields to the towns and cities, and ultimately the highway system.
The vast majority of this enormous enterprise, which took decades and created billions of dollars of wealth for rich farmers, was the work of black laborers. They were “free” — to a degree. Many chose the arduous, dangerous jobs as the only alternative to sharecropping, which was essentially indentured labor. Some were on the run from white landowners who claimed they were owed work or money. Others found a measure of dignity in the life of a rambler with a bit of money in his pocket. Still others were pressed into work, something Lomax says was particularly common in the lawless levee camps, where everyone carried a pistol and a walk by the river meant a good chance of being kidnapped and forced into bone-crushing work in hellish conditions. Those who perished from exhaustion were sometimes simply thrown in the dirt and made part of the levee.
And then there were the chain gangs, a Southern institution for many decades. The prisoners, who lacked liberty just as much as their enslaved forebearers did, were often in jail for long terms because of trumped up charges or cursed luck in a land where oppression made life a minefield of catch-22s. (Accounts of chain gang life that Lomax collected are harrowing and nightmarish in ways that recall Eli Wiesel’s Night). Some historians’ view is that the real-life John Henry, if there was one, was actually a prisoner, too.
In light of this, when Hurt sings about leaving, we must understand that he’s not talking about going home to drink coffee while he scans the newspaper for other job openings. He’s singing about escape. Even more, he’s singing about refusing to accept personal injury for another man’s project, cloaked though it may be in the mythology of heroism, industry, and advancement. Hurt’s narrator is a muted cynic — a quitter, sure, but a quitter of a game whose rules are impossibly rigged. As Lomax writes, “[Prison] officials and underlings were filled with a zeal for work that might well be called Southern Protestant Colonial; they had a passion for forcing others to labor hard in the hot fields and woods, and were enraged if there was shirking…. [They] humiliated, bullied, beat, often tortured, and sometimes murdered their charges.” The levee bosses were only a little better. Goldbricking was protest. Escape was war.
Knowing what we do of the obstacles Hurt’s narrator will likely face down the line — prison, death, or at the least, constant struggle — there’s nothing easy about the road he’s chosen. Just maybe, though, he’ll find a way — down the river, out west, or up north in some distant city.
Whatever the case, he’ll make sure that hammer won’t kill him too. Not by choice, at least. In the circumstances, the strength of the act of leaving is a victory worth writing a song about.