Today being May Day, I could write about the history of how it came to be, and talk about the labour movement till the cows come home, but the musical person that I am, I had to find a song that does the job better.
Well John Henry said to the captain,
Oh a man ain’t nothin’ but a man,
‘Fore I’d let your steam drill beat me down,
I’d die with my hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord,
Die with my hammer in my hand.
These lines basically sum up the essence of the song, although in all fairness I had first heard the Assamese version of the song, originally sung by Hemanga Biswas (link given below if you are interested). As a child, each time I’d hear my Dad hum the tunes, I’d imagine this hefty man with grime and dirt on his face, and muscular arms all bulked up from years of hammering, challenging his captain with a determined face that he would rather die than see his mighty hammer being defeated in the hands of a machine. The song goes on to tell the legend of how John Henry races against the steam drill and wins, but finally dies with the hammer in his hand.
As most legends go, the legend of John Henry is supposed to have been based on a real person, John William Henry, who was a prisoner in the state of Virginia, and was released by the warden to work as a leased labor on the railways. Although there a quite a few theories and speculations on whether or not this race actually took place, and where it did, if it happened at all, fact remains that this is a story that always made me sit up and take notice.
While this song might not exactly adhere to the sentiment of May Day, I had always associated John Henry to the face of the worker who staunchly believes in his prowess, and is extremely proud of being able to work as good as, if not better, than a machine. And I know, for all of us who’ve never had to do physical labor to earn our livelihoods; working from our air conditioned offices typing on our flat screen computers, or having client meetings in ambient coffee shops or expensive restaurants, it is a little difficult to imagine the pathos of a man willing to die rather than succumb to a machine. But I believe all of us could learn something about passion and honor and believing in ourselves from the legend of John Henry.
On a totally different note, this issue marks my homecoming after a long break of more than six months! It is so good to be home, I tell you. Do go through this issue, take your time with it, and marvel at the diversity in our articles, if I may say so myself. Because we at Fried Eye believe that randomness can be oh so beautiful!
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