I usually focus on the labor aspect of this holiday when writing about it, trying to point out how much our country was shaped by both the toil of the workers as well as the labor unions who fought for and won many of the rights that we now take for granted. But this year I thought I would focus on a folk song that addresses the role and importance of labor in our lives:
John Henry– that steel driving man who faced off in an epic battle of man against machine, defeating the steam drill that threatened to take away his job. Well, sort of defeating it. I guess a victory is still a victory even if you die in the wake of your triumph.
Unfortunately, John Henry’s great efforts ultimately didn’t save the jobs of the workers who would be displaced by the steam drill. But it did illustrate the importance of labor and the purpose it adds in our lives. Labor has always been that thing by which we have provided for ourselves and our families, from the time we were primarily hunter/gatherers and farmers (which was not that long ago) to the present day. To take away that ability to provide is to strip away one’s pride and definition as a human.
In that aspect, John Henry’s victory was more than a triumph of blood and bone over steel and gears. It was a triumph of the human spirit, a crying out of our need to be necessary in some way, to be undiminished. And despite John Henry paying the ultimate price for his victory, I think that is why this song still strikes a strong chord with us.
So for this Sunday’s music I will play one of my favorite versions (among many) of John Henry. It’s from Johnny Cash from his 1963 album, Blood, Sweat and Tears, an album which focused on labor. I think it captures that idea of purpose really well.