Friday, November 19, 2004

Tuned V. 1. No. 4: "The Day John Henry Died," Drive-By Truckers

found on Drive-By Trucker’s The Dirty South (2004)

Tuned In:
What is it about writers that make us want to muck the simple up? Here I am, taking as straightforward a song as “The Day John Henry Died” and feeling the need to explain it, tart it up into something I can then peddle on the street. I’s probably not even the best cut on a strong, if overlong, album (at least one Buford Pusser song too many, and the inveterate Blue State of My Mind can’t connect with the NASCAR lament). But I feel drawn to write about it. Maybe it’s like folks coming back again and again (or is that agin and agin?) to the John Henry myth itself—we need to put into our own words the things that speak to us so we can speak with that much weight, for at least a few sentences of our lives.

It’s a song about guitars (no shit, George, it’s the Drive-By Truckers); there’s a fullness to the zip, a kind of inevitability to their tasty edges, sharp and unruly like the fray ends of speaker cables. It’s a song about dynamics, especially in the drums, which drop in and out, always at likely times, but that lets them lift-off when all-out bashed; the song is bathed in what I want to call an over-ride cymbal at times. It’s a song about a buoyant bass, adding to the railroad thump, but also underlining the lyrics, leaving surprising spaces at times big enough to run a locomotive through.

It’s got a story to re-tell, so it’s a song about its words. DBT ignore the racial issues and turn John Henry into the prototype worker in a world that ignores its corpses whether they get the job done or not:

It didn’t matter if he won, if he lived, or if he’d run.
They changed the way his job was done. Labor costs were high.

Jason Isbell sings as if he’s negotiated a tenuous handshake deal between resigned and determined—it’s a worker’s voice. At times a follow vocal adds depth, the answer echoing back from the end of the railroad tunnel. That sonic light gets shined especially on the two what-pass-for-choruses, which stop the ballad verses for morals:

When John Henry was a little bitty baby nobody ever told him how to read
But he knew the perfect way to hold a hammer was the way the railroad barron held the deed.


John Henry was a steel-driving bastard but John Henry was a bastrad just the same.
An engine never thinks about his daddy and an engine never needs to write its name.

The guitars ring a bit more at the close, which eventually ends cold, refuses to fade. It seems like a possible moment for something wild, but guitar catharsis is denied as it would recast the song. Not only John Henry dies—no one gets out alive.

Tuned Out:
Perhaps one of my fascinations with this song is it gives me one more reason to pitch Colson Whitehead’s brilliant mess of a novel John Henry Days. It’s one of those books of late that is more respected than read, which is a shame, for few books of the last 10 years say so much about the as-yet racially screwed up, much-too-media-driven, yet worth saving America of ours, let alone do all that and make you laugh. (I guess there’d be no other way to do it or the book would never be read.)

Whitehead not only takes us through the perhaps mythical, perhaps real story of the famous steel-driving John Henry but also tells the tale of J. Sutter, an African-American journalist (or junketeer, as he puts it) covering the inaugural John Henry Days at Talcott, West Virginia, a tchotchke-choked fest that also celebrates the release of the John Henry stamp. Then there are numerous detours through history, from Tin Pan Alley to Altamont. Then there’s language so thick it parallels what a friend responded to in painting—she wanted to lick a Van Gogh. But the ultimate point is we all live John Henry Days, where labor is cheap, meaning uncertain, everything available for a song.

Go find it in a bookstore and read the chapter pp. 323-337 if you want a tour-de-force sure to sell you on the book. It’s a party and everyone is there, so it’s New York, it’s 300 channels of cable and everything and nothing on, it’s the internet that puts the hyper into links. It’s devastating and delirious. And parts of it go like this:

They had gathered in a club called Glasnost to partake of the spread, the panoply of bite-sized widgets laid out by the publisher of Godfrey Frank’s A Chiropodist in Pangea, a fifteen-hundred-page grimoire of mysterious content that would debut in a few days on the New York Times best-seller lists. There was some question as to whether it would be categorized as fiction or non-fiction. Someone had to finish it first.


He quoted French theorists who liked to inflate helpless nouns with rhetorical gases until they burst into italics, and did some inflating of his own.


The just last week stomach stapled felt something give. The fond of comparing every civic discomfort to the days of Nazi Germany complained about alternate side of the street parking. The hypocritical said they would never do such a thing.


They came here. They came because their empty and periodically disinfected apartments slurred threats at them, malevolent tides seeped from tight carpet moss or between wooden floorboards, and the original wood at that. They came because they heard good things, there was a good buzz, and it was the worst thing they could imagine to be shut out, to be one of the anonymous shapeless out there banging on the castle walls. They came because it kept the hate away, but most of all they checked out their chipped bodies in mirrors, inspected the bits that had fallen away and came here because they thought tonight might be the night of the transfiguration, that sidereal maneuverings up above might allow that the thing in the center of the universe to see them for the first time and it might love them, unclip the bowing velvet rope and accept them into itself. But it wasn’t going to happen.

Listen to the opening of "The Day John Henry Died."


Post a Comment

<< Home

eXTReMe Tracker