Sunday, March 28, 2010

There are many ways to die at work. It's a privilege to have a job that is physically easy that only kills your soul or eats away at your soul and lets it squirm.

John Henry was a steel driving man who may or may not have existed as an individual who got in a contest with a new machine that did what he did. He won the contest and died, in the John Henry song, Lord, Lord.

In "John Henry Days," a novel by Colson Whitehead, we spend some time with John Henry. He is an awesome steel driver. The railroad is digging a tunnel through an Appalachian mountain. He drives a steel stake as deep as possible as fast as possible. Someone else inserts explosives. The explosives go off and the tunnel moves forward.

There are two work sections. When a collapse has killed a group of men at the other location, the boss proposes a steel-driving contest between John Henry and another man, an Irishman. John Henry is often in these contests. John Henry knows that the boss is proposing a contest now to distract the men from the deaths. He knows that the boss has chosen an Irishman to go up against John Henry because that plays into ethnic bad feeling between Irishmen and African-Americans like John Henry. The animosity will further distract from the deaths. John Henry knows the bosses think that way.

Everyone but John Henry is sure he'll win. He does win that contest with a human, as he has won many others.

We see John Henry at his regular work, not a contest, driving a spike in with a holder who isn't good at the job, who is new. The holder messes up, and John Henry's hammer smashes his hand.

He's young. He starts screaming. John Henry starts carrying him out of the tunnel to help, and tells him if he doesn't start screaming, John Henry will leave him to die. The inept spike holder stops screaming.

In "John Henry Days," we spend some time with a man who does the kind of work John Henry does, hard, physical work, and who also creates and sings songs.

At first, I thought this was the man who first created the John Henry song. Then it seems that he is the man who thought of the "Lord, Lord" part. He thought of other people singing it and passing it on, and he was happy.