John Henry 2007 was written about the rapidly changing work conditions at the CSX Osborn railroad yards in Louisville, Kentucky. I had a feeling in my gut I should use my knowledge of folk music to document the historical changes in railroad operations that were occurring. I also knew something historical was happening and the people involved were not happy about it. John Henry 2007 was written to help lighten the mood for what were some very stressful, combative times as the union, CSX Railroad and the workers were all trying to make heads or tails out of what was being forced upon them.
At first the song John Henry was a sound file recorded with my phone and emailed to my local chairman. He then sent the tune out to everyone in his email box from the union and even to company officials. The tune was popular and my co-workers encouraged me to keep writing music about railroading. That’s when the CD Music for Modern Railroaders was born. With the help of a few railroad clerks who drove the yard van transportation, we sold about 200 copies of the CD.
When I was “hired in” five weeks of schooling were required. The soon to come changing work conditions were quietly mentioned at railroad school when I had attended five years prior to writing the song John Henry 2007. One of the instructors at CSX railroad school mentioned that a new method of railroading was just around the bend, however he also mentioned that he was happy he was retired and was not going to see any of the changes. That is it. That is all we discussed, just about fifteen minutes worth of, “one day they are going to run trains with one man.” We had a short talk about remote yard operations, a slight mention of what a remote was and that was it. Before the remotes came, nothing much had changed since about the late 1980’s when the cabooses were taken off the trains.
This song is a re-write of the classic John Henry folk song about a steel-driving man. In the tradition of Joe Hill and the I.W.W., this is how folk music works. You take a well known song and re-write it to fit the needs of the time. Workers on the railroad get a nickname and we had a John Henry. He was an old locomotive engineer close to retirement and agreed with the old railroad school instructor. He was happy he would not see the remotes and retired just before remote control operations started. He certainly was the inspiration for the conventional job as they called it back then. Osborn Yard was one of the first on CSX to implement RCO operations in the yard. The story in the song is actually pretty true to form as the implementation went along. Lots of tweaking the system, failures, lots of number crunching, derailments, and near misses.
John Henry 2007 To all my brothers and sisters in the BLE&T and The UTU! Well John Henry he was a locomotive engineer Workin' down in the Osborn bowl. And he looked at his switchman said you Better git to work. We’re gonna beat that RCO. Gonna beat that RCO! Yankin’ and a Pullin’ on them cars with his Switchman working as fast as he can. Ol’ John is a thinkin the whole time, A Machine aint gonna beat a man. A machine aint gonna beat a man. Well the groundhoggers came out of the shanty And they looked at the 6022. Said to each other as they switched on their boxes, Ya know we got a lotta work to do Ya know we got a lotta work to do. The groundhoggers were havin' a little problem. They couldn’t get their boxes to link up. Between a poll off-line and a comm loss, They wer’nt having a very good time. Seems like it happens everytime. Well the groundhoggers hollerd at the bowl. BOWL TOWR We’re havin a problem linkin up. We’ve tried everything we know how to do. I guess we’re shit outta luck I guess we’re shit outta luck. The tower hollers to John Henry. Come and get this engine outta the way It’s blockin the East and we gotta pull some cars, I guess we’ll convert one today, It seems like it’s better that way. The groundhoggers sat in the shanty, Waitin' for a Big E to come and git er done. John Henry and his switchman already pulled 300 cars! That RCO job pulled none. But it’s safer when you sit on your bum. There is a reason for this story, Corporate greed is killin this land. If we don’t do something and ORGANIZE. Say hello to the ONE MAN PLAN. That’s talkin Union! They wanna run trains with one man. Roll the Union on!!