Tag: Woody Guthrie

Song & Voice by Casey Watson


I’m smack dab in the middle of my research into Woody Guthrie’s iconic “This Land is Your Land,” arguably one of the most recognizable songs in the American folk song catalog or the whole of American music for that matter. We all know it. It is as pervasive in our culture as it is catchy. And while I dig and sift through biographies of Guthrie and articles addressing the dissentious message of the song, I’m reminded of something Scott Nelson mentioned in his John Henry piece: “Historians tend to regard music as background rather than raw material. Appropriated for book titles by countless historians, music itself is seldom seen as a primary source.”[1] I believe he is right. But obviously the role of music in memory is more complex, permeating almost all of our lives.

A friend of mine, a pop-music critic, made this observation in her article reconsidering Kanye West’s Yeezus earlier this year: “…music…[is] always in the air, always ready to sneak up on you, sometimes when you least expect it. There’s no telling, especially not on first listen, how many times you’ll hear a given song or album over a lifetime, or which listen will be the one when it finally clicks with you, if it’s to click at all. Maybe it’ll be the first, or third. Maybe it’ll be the thousandth.”[2] She’s pointing to the fact that a piece of music, more so than any other piece of artwork, can be consumed and internalized over and over in huge numbers. I believe that this unique ability of a song is precisely the reason that it is so easily considered “background” by historians or other researchers. Because a song can be replayed seemingly ad infinitum, coupled with the tendency for the listener to develop a personal connection and interpretation of said song (it’s art, right? It’s can be whatever you need it to be), we as listeners are able to retrofit it with new significance and personal meaning. In doing so, the song is slowly removed from its origins and in some cases, such as “This Land is Your Land”, transformed into an icon; a useful, malleable cultural tool.

Now then. Why does this matter? While doing my research, it occurred to me that perhaps a song’s ability to take on so many meanings while burrowing deeper and deeper into our cultural subconscious with each replay is the reason that songs are so often marginalized by some historians. In my opinion, this is foolish particularly when the subject is a folk song. Folk songs are stories and stories are seldom created for leisure. They come from specific circumstances and are sometimes the only traces the voice of a particular group. “This Land is Your Land” has taken on a life of its own since Guthrie penned it (as icons are wont to do). But we must not forget that his voice was that of the disenfranchised during the Dust Bowl. His words are telling and must not be forgotten as the song is sung by children at camp or Presidential hopefuls.

[1] Scott Nelson, “Who was john henry? railroad construction, southern folklore, and the birth of rock and roll”, Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas 2 (2): 54-55.

[2] Lindsay Zoladz, “Reviewing Yeezus in 2016 to Better Understand Kanye West and The Life of Pablo.” Review of Yeezus. Vulture, February 14, 2016. http://www.vulture.com/2016/02/kanye-west-the-life-of-pablo-review-yeezus.html.


A Steel-Driving Man by Casey Watson

jhThere are two men sitting across from one another. One is a tall, powerfully built man with strength that approaches superhuman and determination to match. He is a hero. People write stories about him defeating a massive steam drill with his mighty hammer while building on the rail road. This man is a legend. A gleaming champion of the working man and the definition of a physically fit human. His eventual death will give way to books, movies, and songs commemorating his achievement. The other man is far more mysterious, his story a swirling cloud of conflicting accounts and poorly maintained records. He is a short young man from New Jersey. Or maybe he isn’t. He worked and died while driving steel in Virginia at Big Bend Tunnel. Or Lewis Tunnel. Or is it Coosa Mountain Tunnel? It’s difficult to say. Wherever he worked or whoever he was, people seem to know him; to have worked with him. They sing ballads about his death, one which will slip into oblivion with little to no mention in historical record. Both of these men are John Henry.

The massive gap in characterization between the two, coupled with a patchwork of various penitentiary, court, and rail records, as well as a sizable body of references within pop culture, leads me to a fundamental question: when it comes to an icon like John Henry, how much does the “truth” actually matter? Historical research into Henry, like that of Scott Nelson, and the popular tale both point to the man working on a Virginia railroad in the early 1870s. The folktale of the heroic John Henry has become an American classic and adapted by Disney, sung by artists like Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger, or transformed into DC Comic’s Steel. However, his historical significance, as Nelson interprets it, lives on almost exclusively in the work songs of Black rail road workers, trickling into the corpus of American work songs. This is not to say that the influence of these kinds of songs is insignificant, nor that his story is without value. But ultimately, the John Henry that Nelson digs up is arrested, works, and dies without much notice, historically speaking. With this in mind, I wonder if there is any point to uncovering the historical John Henry insofar as American collective memory or iconography is concerned. Where historians surely recognize the value in the collection and analysis of sources as a means to appreciate the cultures and experiences of the past, the majority of Americans not only seem fine with the the simplified folktale of John Henry, but actually appear to use him as a figure of inspiration.

JH5The John Henry portrayed in the 2000 Disney short is the people’s champion, envisioned as a Reconstruction-era Moses, leading the rail workers to the “promised land”, the land of Canaan. He follows his dream and dies having realized it. He is someone to be like. Steel, or John Henry Irons, of DC Comics is an intellectual and inventor, taking up the mantle of Superman after his death. Like the folktale, Irons fights back against the Machine of the modern weapons industry with the iconic hammer of John Henry. These are positive Black roles models who teach young Black children to work hard with determination and moral conviction. If they do, they can beat “the machine” and ascend to greatness.

JH6Don’t get me wrong. I’m not scoffing at these ideals or the power that icons like John Henry possess. It simply troubles me that, by reimagining this man, whoever he really was, we as a people lose sight of the horrible deaths suffered by the hundreds who built the railroads. We might forget the racial component that allowed convicts to work and die without notice. The existence and perpetuation of a positive Black icon is a worthy cause, but I think there is great danger in forgetting where these legends are born and, in this case, die.