John Henry was the second folk song I worked on after I started working at the CSX railroad as a yard switchman. The first tune I wrote was Hub Engineer. We will get to that later.
There was so much going on around us as this tune was being reformatted for contemporary use. A new technology was being introduced, jobs were being cut and morale was at an all time low. Written on the cab wall of one of the railroad yard switch engines, in big black letters read:
The Flogging Will Continue Until Morale Improves.
Remote control technology had been a rumor for a long time and every once in a while in conversation we railroaders would suggest that it could never work, or any version of that argument, however, the union was making agreements, the remote control boxes were arriving and something needed to be done.
I grew up around folk music my whole life!
I was raised by a railroader and political activist! I knew the John Henry story and knew the power of song and being a Sun Ra devotee, knew that myth was important to developing our story. John Henry might as well had been a steel driving man, but we needed a hero. We needed myth and a story. What we needed was good old folk music to the rescue!
After releasing the song, I was sort of concerned because my co-workers were not fully aware of one of their own working class heroes. What was even more troubling, was that the moral to the real folk story John Henry was not being heeded.
Pride killed John Henry, and pride was not going to help us organize against this new technology. The railroad knew Remote Control Technology was a direct threat to the locomotive engineer craft. They knew the two unions it was being forced on were historically known to fight each other. The railroad worked every aspect of the pride issue and eventually got exactly what they wanted. We were railroaded.
Everybody was pissed off, mad and nervous.
Things were changing fast! Operations were changing, two unions were being pitted against each other and something historical was happening and needed to be told. A story. A story about what was going on back in the not so far away past. In some ways, I was embedded behind the front lines of the class war. Sort of a war journalist in a railyard battlefield.
I compiled the song John Henry on a CD titled Music For Modern Railroaders and sold them at the railyard from a clerk van. I think we sold about 200 copies at the yard. The song made everybody who bought a CD from the railroad clerk, laugh.
We needed laughter, bad.
There really was a locomotive engineer named John Henry at the railyard. He retired before the remote control technology was implemented. Ol’ John used to say when the rumors became a locker room conversation, that he would be gone before they came. If you get the nickname John Henry on the railroad these days, it’s probably because you are a company man. You probably need to slow down. He was one of those who would work us out of a job. Slow down! John Henry for ya’ work us all out of a job!
John Henry 2006 from (JP) (rufus porter) 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.
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 allready 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!!