I grew up with Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. If you aren’t from Minnesota we’ll forgive you for not knowing what that is. Click the link. Later on, I heard the John Henry story, probably in the Johnny Cash version, but there are so many versions. The John Henry story is an archetypal American story- the man against machine myth (for the record, the Paul Bunyan story is almost exactly the same in its essence, though there are a whole series of ‘mythical’ Paul Bunyan stories, many of which steal freely from native myth as well). There’s something very powerful and engaging in the individual fighting advancing modernity in both stories. In both stories the protagonist succeeds, but it’s a pyrrhic victory. So just perfect for Americana or alt-country.
Even later, I ran intro the Jason Isbell version (when he was with the Drive By Truckers). I loved the idea of doing some different twist on an old myth or legend. Isbell’s song retells the myth in a more modern context, and the title (and refrain), “The Day John Henry Died,” colors the lyric in an even more tragic way. So that was rattling around in my head for a while. Eventually I found myself playing with the idea of what it might be like to live with a myth- especially if the myth was a reality in your own life. What must it be like to be, say, Johnny Cash’s daughter (Roseanne Cash), or Steve Earle’s son (Justin Townes Earle). For the record, all songwriters that I love- parent and child. What would it be like to try to carve out your own space in the shadow of a myth? What would it be like to have lived a reality that’s different than the myth, but everybody else just knows the myth?
So that’s where the song “John Henry’s Son” came from. I put it on Dirt & Heartache, but for some reason, after the record was out, I felt the need to rewrite the chorus. Somehow the chorus always sounded more like a verse, so I revised it to sound more like a chorus. I guess that’s something you aren’t supposed to do, but who cares. It’s my song. Here’s a live clip of the new version. Let me know what you think.
Side note- people often ask if this song is about me and my father. I totally understand why you would ask that, but as it happens, it isn’t.
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