John Henry Days lecture notes (2014)


From Greil’s course in the Writing Program at the New School (Fall 2014), “The Old Weird America: Music as Democratic Speech—From the Commonplace Song to Bob Dylan.” Lecture 9, Oct. 30, 2014.



More on John Henry & Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days

How the song is sung—how John Henry Days itself is a constant re-singing of the song.

Simply going through some of the ways the book sings the song—and nothing like all of them—opens up the song—lets you see how big it is, how each singing of the song becomes a picture of the country itself.

I started the course in August reading from a chapter about what I called “The Lone Songwriter,” or “The Guy on the Hill”—someone sitting under a tree, thinking, talking to himself, singing out loud—
–musing about how someone told him “there’s a whole country of songs out there”
–how “like a dollar bill, a song changes hands”
–how a line locks into his mind, then his voice, “Lord, Lord”—
–“He’s almost stealing the song today.”

In this book, this singer hides inside every other voice. There are so many—I’m only going to talk about a few. You’ll find others you like more.

[197] Jake Rose, the song plugger, recruited out of synagogue choir, wants to write songs. The detail—newspapers in pianos to muffle the sound so no one in the adjoining cubicle can steal your song. Who Jake is, what Jake does. It’s 1905 in downtown New York on the Bowery. Rose is lying in the snow after having been beaten and robbed.

[Read  pp. 204-05]

That’s one singing—Jake Rose writing it down, changing it, making it scan, is another. And then he gets it into a nightclub and someone stands on a stage and sings it again.

Yes, there’s a literal John Henry parallel—“Some places got music machines, player pianos that play songs that are already set, and there’s no use for a plugger when they got a machine to do it.” (203)

But there is so much more going on—as Whitehead constructs the story out of bits and pieces of New York Public Library research, it takes on a life of its own.

This remarkable ten-page one-paragraph chapter—why is it written this way? Is getting the song down on paper a race against time, against death, against memory, against forgetting?

And that piece of sheet music, with his name on it, will turn up again and again in the book.

[250] Moses, the Mississippi blues singer in Chicago in the 1930s, with a young white man who knows exactly what he wants and doesn’t hesitate to tell the singer what to sing and how. But the Lone Songmaker is looking over Moses’s shoulder, telling him to find his own song. And as Moses plays:

“The words ‘nothing but a man’ set him thinking on it: Moses felt the natural thing–” and it’s interesting, Whitehead’s choice of “natural” for Moses—the song moves toward inevitabilities, commonplaces, what anyone would feel, what everyone would feel—

“–the natural thing would be to sing about what the man felt waking up in his bed the day of the race. Knowing what he had to do and knowing that it was his last sunrise… Moses could relate to that, he figured most everyone could feel what that was like. Moses certainly understood: that little terror on waking, for half a second, am I going to die today. Am I already dead?” (260)

But speaking of already dead—the record man in the story, who hangs out at the Chicago blues club where Moses plays, who tells Moses he’s a scout for American Records, that he wants to record him—the man whose shop Moses goes to the next two days to record, where he sees 78s by Skip James and Blind Lemon Jefferson—this makes it about 1931—is already dead.

There are many secrets, references even more blind than this one, all through this book—we’ll be looking for a while at another one later. But Andrew Goodman—that was the name of one of the three Civil Rights workers—James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman——who were murdered by police and the Ku Klux Klan near Meridian, Mississippi, in the summer of 1964, and buried in a dam site.In this 1964 file photo released by the FBI, the bodies of three civil rights workers are uncovered from an earthen dam southwest of Philadelphia, Miss. The photograph was entered as evidence by the prosecution in the trial of Edgar Ray Killen, who was convicted in 2005 for three counts of manslaughter in the deaths of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

It was a story that convulsed the nation then, and echoes today.

“It’s not Mississippi in the fifties,” one of J’s friends says about J’s nervousness about being in the south, in West Virgina. “It’s always Mississippi in the fifties,” J. says.

Like the white Andrew Goodman with his record store in the heart of black Chicago, where other white people won’t go, the later Andrew Goodman was a young man from the Upper West Side of New York who went to Mississippi to try to convince black people to risk their lives to register to vote—

–his death and those of Schwerner, also from New York, and Chaney, from Mississippi, were one reason the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was drafted—

—one reason this Andrew Goodman’s America, where in state after state black citizens were denied the right to vote, no longer existed when Colson Whitehead wrote his book—

–though whether it will exist again is another question. None of this is old news. When the Supreme Court overturned the Voting Rights Act of 1965 last year, they all but invited whatever state might chose to do so to do everything it could to once again prevent black people—not to mention older people, Hispanic people, young people, especially college students—from voting.

“It’s not Mississippi in 1964,” we could have said the day before that Supreme Court decision. “It’s always Mississippi in 1964,” we could have said the day after.

The Andrew Goodman in John Henry Days is also the Andrew Goodman from 1964.

But there are references even more elusive than this one.

[262] Another singer of the song: the statue maker: “The artist was forced to rely on what the story worked on his brain. He looked at the footprint left in his psyche by the steeldriver’s great strides and tried to reconstruct what such a man might look like.”[John Henry statue in Talcott, WV]

[265] J. and Pamela Street at the statue. She’s in Talcott for John Henry Days to maybe sell the contents of her father’s John Henry Museum in their apartment in Harlem, the museum no one ever visited. She hates everything about John Henry—her father’s collection, his obsession, took away her childhood.

She tells a story: one day a creepy man showed up with a case supposedly containing five actual drill bits used to blast the Big Bend Tunnel. Her father bought them all—“the new school clothes could wait”—and hung them over his mantel. To Pamela they were five scary, threatening fingers–“a railroad hand.” Can you think of a more ominous image? She hates everything about John Henry; in spite of herself, she knows everything about him.

“You see those dents in the statue,” Pamela says. “People come around and use it for target practice. One time they chained the statue to a pick-up and dragged it off the pedestal down the road there. Then the statue fell off and they drove off so they found it next day just lying in the road.”

For a book published in 2001, this isn’t just an ironic story. The whole novel is made of detail, Colson Whitehead researching or imagining every setting, every character’s milieu, what a room looks like, how people talk there, what they wear, what they’re afraid of, what the air is like. But there are also hidden details, and this is one.

In this case—“One time they chained the statue to a pick up and dragged it off the pedestal down the road”—it’s an illustration of the twists and tangles folk songs take as they emerge from real life, live in the imaginative life of countless people, and then find themselves pulled back into real life, until you can’t tell the song from the events behind it and in front of it. You can’t tell the real from the imaginative.

You can’t tell if the event caused the song or the song caused the event.

Here, the tale of people dragging the statue off its pedestal and chaining it to a pickup truck is an inescapable reference to an actual historical event.

[PLAY “Two Towns of Jasper,” beginning at 00:45 and go to 03:07]The sheriff, from a 2003 film by Whitney Dow and Marco Williams called The Two Towns of Jasper, is speaking about the murder of James Byrd, Jr., 49, in Jasper, Texas, on June 7, 1998.Three white men, John King and Russell Brewer and Shawn Berry, offer Byrd a ride, then take him behind a store, beat him with a baseball bat, then chain him by his ankles to a pickup truck and drag him to death.

They dumped the body at the gate of a local black cemetery. There was no head and no right arm. There was forensic evidence that Byrd had tried to keep his head off the ground until the driver of the truck swerved and smashed him into a culvert.

King and Brewer were both white supremacists—King had a tattoo of a black man hanging from a tree. Berry was sentenced to life. Brewer and King were sentenced to death—Russell Brewer was executed in Texas in 2011. John King is still on death row.

In this class, in the context Colson Whitehead builds with John Henry Days, this event almost amounts to an un-singing of the John Henry song—

And it is an argument that any lynching of a black person is an un-singing of the song—

And that the song itself is a symbolic un-singing of any and every lynching of a black person, an affirmation of the power of a single African-American to deny and defeat the white power set against him, even if it costs him his life, but not his dignity.

But out of this complex of references, there is another version of this version of the song—by Christian Marclay.

Today Marclay is best known for The Clock—a 24 hour collage of clips from thousands of movies to create a picture of an entire, mythic day that ran at MOMA two years ago.

He’s a visual artist who started out working with musical themes—taking LPs and designing new covers and labels. He broke and reassembled LPs, fitting pieces of different records into one that would still actually play. Everything in his work is about recontextualization, taking something out of one context, putting it into another, so that every element begins to tell a story it never told before—but that it always wanted to tell. That’s the feeling.

In the late ’70s and early ’80s Marclay was part of the downtown New York punk and art scenes. He was a turntablist. In 1983 he invented the phonoguitar—so he could scratch, distort, and play a phonograph record while performing as if he was a guitarist. One of the songs he loved to do was Jimi Hendrix’s “I Don’t Live Today”—this is Marclay from that time, in what he calls “getting into my Hendrix moves.”If you were a formalist, you could say that a video that Marclay made seventeen years later, in 2000, was just an extension of scratching. Or you could see it as a version of that road in Jasper, Texas. That, in any case, was the road Marclay got into his truck to drive. This is “Guitar Drag.“Guitar Drag” is an experiment in pure sound, an experiment in the capabilities of the electric guitar. But it is also a remaking, a recontextualization, the rewriting of a specific historical event.

Marclay: “The video is almost never shown as a screening. It is meant to be experienced as an installation, a projection in a black box, with a powerful sound system. The aggressive sound and dizzying camera movements, should make the viewer feel unsettled, off balance, dizzy. It is not supposed to be a comfortable experience.”

It is a singing of the murder, or the lynching, of James Byrd, Jr. And in the web of this class, it is also a re-singing of an un-singing of “John Henry.”

Back in the novel, Colson Whitehead is still gaining on his story.

[269] There’s Jennifer Sutter—on Strivers’Row in Harlem in 1950. A girl taking piano lessons—J. Sutter’s aunt.

Uses her dime in a forbidden music store for sheet music, water damaged junk in the back, old Jake Rose copyright, takes it home, her mother is appalled at this filth—but not before Jennifer Sutter has propped up the sheet music on the music stand and played the song over and over, until it begins to talk to her.

In 1931, a woman from Grand Rapids, Michigan named Constance Rourke published a book called Amerian Humor—A Study of the National Character. If any one person could be called the founder of American Studies, she was it. In American Humor she focused on three American types—the Yankee, the Backwoodsman, and the Blackface Minstrel. All of America’s folklore, all of its myths, stories, tall tales, and songs, she said, came out of these three archetypes—these three endlessly inhabitable figures.

And she argued that for the blackface minstrel, the white man smearing his face with burnt cork or black grease and pretending to be black, usually pretending to be a stupid, stumbling, fool, even then, through the blackface mask, something real, some true speech, the straining voice of the back American speaking out of the mouth of the white American—like John Henry speaking through the Jewish songwriter to the black girl in Harlem as she sits at her fine piano:

“There’s something sad about the song, but what she feels most is—pushed. The song pushes her… it quickens inside her.”

[281] There’s Alphonse Miggs, the stamp collector—the man who lives in his basement, who collects railroad stamps. The man who saved J’s life when he choked on a piece of meat—and the man who at the stamp unveiling ceremonies will pull out his pistol and start shooting.

In some deeply twisted way, the John Henry stamp everyone’s in Talcott to celebrate has set him off. He has become John Henry. He is the leader of the Alphonse Miggs Liberation Front, of which he is the sole member.

[299] There’s J. at the bodega in New York, and the crackhead hassling him, who says he’ll even “sing for my supper… Then he jumps up and down and sings from his raw throat—

—‘This old hammer killed John Henry but it won’t kill me! This old hammer killed John Henry but it won’t kill me!”

Finally J gives him money: “You won,” J says—in this contest the crackhead is John Henry and J. is the steam drill, the money, the power.

[381] There’s Mr. Street in his living room, his wife gone, his daughter on her own and rarely visiting, alone with his John Henry Museum, every day waiting for the crowds. “In the morning he played the earliest versions of the song,” moving from cylinders to 78s to LPs to cassettes and eight-tracks and CDs, following the song as technology chases it.

[385] There is, at the end, John Henry himself.

He’s appeared in pieces throughout the book, little bits of situations on the mountain, barely a hint of biography—we learn that when he was a slave his owner leased him to the mines when he was six years old.

He remains as spectral as he is in the song, even as he thinks—he doesn’t seem to talk. There’s a passage when he’s convulsed by a nightmare—he and his shaker, Lil Bobby, are hammering, they break through the mountain, to the other side, but instead of light there are rivers of blood and the mountain has turned into flesh.

Then comes a passage that tells you as much about what it means to write a novel as about any real or symbolic John Henry—what it means to imagine a situation that never existed before, and then get it on the page as if it’s everyone has experienced it:

“He had traveled through a series of fever dreams all night.  They were coupled together like train cars.  He knew that the caboose contained morning and each time he fell asleep he hoped that this time he would step into it.  But he opened the door to the next car and stepped again into nightmare . . . He had lost two days’ wages laid up in bed.” (239)

That is a song.

[378] There’s the scene where Pamela and J. are on the mountain, looking for the right place to bury Mr. Street’s ashes. They find remnants of a cemetery, even the place where John Henry might be. Pamela sings the song under her breath, as the song’s Polly Ann singing to her father’s John Henry.

[373] But all rich books have many beginnings and many endings, and it may be that the real ending of John Henry Days comes before these last moments, when Pamela and J. are walking to the mountain, shifting the box with Mr. Street’s ashes back and forth. John Henry has been her own steam drill, but finally she can talk about it.

“She says there are many versions of the song, as many versions as there are people who sing it.”

[Read entire paragraph]

And finally at the end there is Mr. Street himself, waking every day to prepare his museum for the crowds he always imagines will arrive to see what’s he’s done with his life. His way of singing the song is to walk through his rooms, delivering his guided tour, his speech about John Henry, to his countless invisible audiences.

But who’s who? It’s the great reversal. Mr. Street is John Henry in this story, and the legend of John Henry itself—or the forgetting of the legend, all the people in the world who haven’t heard the story or don’t care—is the steam drill he can never beat.

At the end, for Mr. Street, John Henry has turned into the mountain he can’t beat. John Henry has turned into the steam drill.

SEMINAR DISCUSSION

Play Drive By Truckers fabulous “The Day John Henry Died

I watched the rain; it settled in. We disappeared for days again.
Most of us were staying in, lazy like the sky.
The letters flew across the wire filtered through a million liars.
The whole world smelled like burning tires the day John Henry died.

We knew about that big machine that ran on human hope and steam.
Bets on John were far between and mostly on the side.
We heard he put up quite a fight. His hands and feet turned snowy white.
That hammer rang out through the night the day John Henry died.

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

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.
That new machine was cheap as hell and only John would work as well,
so they left him laying where he fell the day John Henry died.

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

So pack your bags, we’re headed west and L.A. ain’t no place to rest.
You’ll need some sleep to pass the test, so get some on the flight
and say your prayers John Henry Ford ’cause we don’t need your work no more.
You should have known the final score the day John Henry died.


See Greil’s 2001 review of Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days


One thought on “John Henry Days lecture notes (2014)

  1. Thanks for posting these lecture notes. They pair up well with the words below from Bob Dylan which he spoke during his MusiCares Person of the Year speech in February 2015

    These songs didn’t come out of thin air… If you sang “John Henry” as many times as me– John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said “a man ain’t nothin’ but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I’ll die with that hammer in my hand.” If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written “How many roads must a man walk down?” too.

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