Friday, February 3, 2012

Finished Friday: John Henry (My most interesting school goal this week)


image taken from the book
We all have heard of John Henry. The black legend that beat the steam drill, but who was he really? I was watching a video called "The Legends of America" and I thought to myself. Who was John Henry really? So I went hunting. (Come to find out, I also had a school goal scheduled for this week to research a man from the Railroad.)

John Henry lyrics[From: http://www.elyrics.net/read/v/van-morrison-lyrics/john-henry-lyrics.html ]


When John Henry was a little baby
Sittin' on his mama's knee
Well he picked up a feather and a piece of steel
And said that's gonna be the death of me
Lord, lord, lord that's gonna be the death of me
Well John Henry had a little woman
Name of Polly Ann
Well John got sick had to lay down on the bed
Polly drove steel like a man
Lord, lord, lord, Polly drove steel like a man

Well John Henry went up on the mountain
Well the mountain was sinkin' in
He said come on captain I know what I'm doin'
It ain't nothin' but my hammer suckin' wind

Lord, lord, lord, It ain't nothin' but my hammer suckin' wind

Well john Henry went up on the mountain
Lord the mountain was so high
He said we're gonna shake this steel drivin' down
Give me a cool drink of water before I die
Give me a cool drink of water before I die

Some say he came from England
Some say he came from Spain
But John Henry was nothin' but a Louisiana man
And he died with his hammer in his hand
Lord, lord, lord, he died with his hammer in his hand
Steel drivin' man, he died with his hammer in his hand





I found this book in our library and I was blown away with the information within. The real John W. Henry was a scavenger for the south during the Civil War. Meaning  he was trained to scavenge the abanded county side to find whatever they could eat or sell to help support the army. He was 5ft 1.25 inches he was born in 1847. After the war he was out of a job so he continued what he was doing and was arrested for House break and Larceny on November 16, 1866. He received a ten years in prison, and was sentenced to Prince George. 

I was shocked when I heard this information. How did somebody with that reputation get to become a legend? I continued reading, You see the Blacks between needing jobs, and basic necessities, and the whites not liking the blacks many of them got put in jail actually it was almost 10 blacks to every one white. (How do you get that kind of numbers with the population equaling 10%?) So the jail signed up with the C&O Railroad company to let the prisoners come work for a year or two for free labor. The catch was that either the person or his body must be returned or the company had to pay a huge fine. So John Henry was sent to work. 

Henry's job was drilling holes for the dynamite to break up rocks so that the Miners could dig faster. He was part of what was called a "Rock and Roll team" (Sound falmilure?) Two would hold the drill (The roll) and one would hold the hammer (The Rock) and they would sing heavy beat songs to stay in rhythm. (That is where Rock and Roll music came from... Miners!)

Now the next thing that caught me by surprise what which tunnel he worked at. It is commonly believed that it was the Big Bend Tunnel but evidence showed that that tunnel was entirely too small for a steam drill t work or even fit into, also the rock is Red Rock which is a very soft rock, in the legend it was a very hard Rock so it defiantly was not the big bend tunnel. But which one was it I continued reading and it finally told me on page 53. The Lewis Tunnel. 

So what exactly happened? Well you see the company's steam drills kept breaking down and costing the company a TON of money so what did the boss do? He made a contest, The prisoners against the Steam drills. People would bet money on who would win. John Henry challenged it and won. He did almost twice what the steam drill did but in the process he got what the miners called "Black lung" which is what happens when the mining conditions are not up to par. It takes between a few minuets and a ten years to kill. To this day we have a lot of problems with this disease if we are not careful. And it is almost a guarantee you will catch it when working alongside a Steam drill... 

John Henry's Body was sent back to the prison along with 300 other prisoners that had been killed by the contest. The prison, not wanting the public to know what happened buried them in front of "The White House" so called because it was the only building on the prison compound that was white. It was also the main building. 

Now why did he get a song written about him? If you listen to the song it is not one of praise of how great the man was, but on the contrary a song of remorse and warning to anybody else who knew how to listen to keep their nose clean and stay out of the jails. And to let the families of those men know that they had been killed and how. 

I did not add half of the information that is in this book. If you want all of it you are going to have to read it for yourself. But If I had to summarize this book in but one word I would have to say it would be, Fascinating.

(Now it is my understanding that during this time era most people in the south was in this boat, whites included. The only difference was the whites had property (it might be in ashes) but they did have land they could go to. The blacks didn't nor did they have a job and neither was there any jobs to get. What do you do with hundreds of men suddenly free searching for their wife and kids in a land that had just been sacked by the North? It is not that they did not want to work but they had to find they family first then settle down. (Who can blame them.) But when they did get caught they would get the hardest longest punishment for stealing a chicken or two or something that simple. In my opinion there is nothing sadder that Man taking advantage of the weakness of other men that they do not like just because of the color of their skin.)

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