Ol’ John Henry Was A Pile-Drivin’ Man

Samhain                                              Waxing Moon of the Winter Solstice

In the John Henry versus the pile driver, Watson versus Jeopardy competitions I come down on the side of the poor schlubs trying to prove we’re not over with as a species.  It comes as a special insult then when I can’t make a particular machine work.  After all, if the machine doesn’t work, we cannot prove our mastery over it.  Neither can we get anything done.

50%.  That was my results.  I got the snowblower going, coughing and sputtering, blowing blue flame from the air filter, chugging like an emphysemic senior citizen climbing stairs, but, nonetheless, blowing snow.  All the gasping and gurgling came from the year old gas still left in its system.  I siphoned the tank, but there was still gas in the engine itself.  It will, gradually, calm down unless the carburetor has too much varnish on it from the aging gas.

The chainsaw, on the other hand, would not come back to life.  I fed it new gas mixed with the proper amount of oil, filled up its chain lubricant reservoir, pulled out the choke, set the kick-back safety bar and yanked.  And yanked.  And yanked.  Not even a murmur.  At some point in the process I began to make physical fitness resolutions.  Lose 10 pounds.  Do resistance work.  A machine I can use and I can’t get the damn thing started.  So, after much huffing and puffing–me–I decided to let it and me rest for a while.

Now I’m back at a machine that I understand better than the chain saw, though not much better, but one with which I am much more familiar.  This is my 8th or 9th computer, orders of magnitude faster than the others with storage so great that I struggle to fill a third of it and programs that can do wonders.

Palmer Hayden and John Henry

In 1944 he embarked on what became a three-year effort to create his most famous group of paintings, the John Henry series. The idea, however, stemmed from his childhood when he heard his father and others sing the ballad of the “steel drivin’ man” and when he first made sketches of his hero.

His efforts to make the series were helped when his wife found a book titled John Henry: A Folklore Story by Louis W. Chappell which indicated the story of John Henry was based on a real person by that name. Hayden corresponded with Chappell. Chappell, an instructor at West Virginia University, answered Hayden’s questions and, in a letter, urged him to make John Henry’s woman a red head. He said, “I hope she will look like something fit to go home to when the day’s work is over and the night’s work is ready to begin, and such a woman is not altogether a matter of clothes.”

He also stressed the importance of John Henry’s hammer. “I have an idea that Henry’s hammer might well create a number of problems for the painter,” he told him. “I have yet to see a picture of Henry holding his hammer in his hands, or swinging it in driving steel, that has the slightest touch of reality in it.”

Hayden heeded Chappell’s urgings. The Dress She Wore Was Blue depicts a woman with red hair that probably satisfies the request to make Henry’s woman “fit to go home to”, while Hammer in His Hand shows John Henry holding his hammer in a realistic way.

The John Henry series was exhibited at the Argent Gallery in New York City, January 20 to February 1, 1947. A New York Times reviewer said “…the story of John Henry is unfolded in a dozen oils by Palmer Hayden, who has captured something of the combined literalness and imaginative quality in Negro spirituals in these paintings of that ‘steel-drivin’ man from childhood to his fatal competition with a steam drill….The artist has found and utilized illustratively the picturesque material in the saga of the black Paul Bunyan.”

Hale Woodruff wrote in the guest book for the show, “very good, Palmer!”

Hayden later said in an interview that Henry was “a powerful and popular working man who belonged to my section of the country and to my race.” He also related to him because Henry was so much like the men he grew up with. And, in The Seine at St. Cloud, the two symbols of Hayden’s hometown, the railroad and the river, appear in There Lies That Steel Drivin’ Man.


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