July 24, 2013

With his hammer in his hand

I'm a bit behind on newspapers, blogging, sleep, and such these days. However, an article in the Gazette caught my eye about West Virginia and folklore legend John Henry. Actually, the article was about visiting Boy Scouts fixing up the memorial park in Talcott WV, where the legendary showdown between the steel drivin' man and the machine drill was said to have taken place.

I have no idea exactly what went down, although I tend to believe there is some historical basis behind most legends. I do believe though that John Henry's story is a fitting metaphor for much of West Virginia's labor history. The dead labor power of machinery continues to compete with the living labor power of workers and the latter usually comes off worse.

John Henry is also an example of the role of African Americans in the state's economic history. After the Civil War, many came from the south to find work on the railroads or in the mines where they helped build the nation's industrial might and sometimes died in the process.

One more random but related thought: if you haven't read it, I highly recommend Colson Whitehead's quirky 2001 novel John Henry Days. Here's a review from when it first came out.

1 comment:

Elizabeth Gaucher said...

One thing that has troubled me about the legend of John Henry since I became an adult is the suspicion that he was forced to do what he did. I have a terrible vision of white men putting him up against a machine like they do chickens and dogs, for their own entertainment. I hope I'm wrong. I guess we will never know.