John Henry was a Steel-Drivin’ Man

(For a dramatic reading of this myth: YOUTUUUUUBE)

Guys i want to call your attention to something

dont you think it’s weird
that of all the myriad ethnic groups
we have shoehorned together in this great nation
our predominant mythological tradition
is tied to a bunch of ancient dead dudes
whose religion no one even worships anymore?

guys

why do we know so many greek myths guys
if you grow up in sweden
they make you learn norse myths
straight up that is something you have to do
because the swedes
DESCENDED FROM THE NORSE
I AM NOT EVEN ONE EIGHTEENTH GREEK GUYS
WHY DO I KNOW ALL THESE GREEK MYTHS

now i am not denying greek myths are super sweet
there is nothing better
if you want to watch a bunch of asshole children
fuck and kill each other
but i feel like it is my duty as an american
to raise awareness
of some motherfucking AMERICAN MYTHOLOGY UP IN HERE

so here goes

NOW JOHN HENRY WAS A STEEL-DRIVIN’ MAN
do you guys know what that means
that means that he was a dude who worked on a railroad
and his job
was to KILL MOUNTAINS
now the way he did this
was some poor sonofabitch named Little Bill
would hold a steel drill in place against the rock
while john henry BEAT THIS SHIT OUT OF IT
WITH A TWENTY POUND HAMMER
and Bill had to keep turning the drill after every strike
and eventually the drill would get dull
so he had to swap it out
for another drill
that someone would hopefully hand to him about that time
and then they would bring the old drill to a blacksmith
so the blacksmith could fix it
and then bring it back
to bill
so he could switch it out
AGAIN
and meanwhile John Henry’s hammer
is just whistling right past Bill’s junk
or face
or ribs
or wherever he had to hold the drill
in order to make sure the rock was getting brutalized in the right direction
And john henry
for his part
just has to heft a fucking TWENTY POUND HAMMER
over and over again
with perfect accuracy
all day
through solid rock
never stopping
never getting tired
under constant threat of rockslides and disfigurement

so this is this guy’s job

now john henry works for a pack of rat bastards
called the C&O railroad company
i know they are rat bastards
because one day john henry’s railroad team
rolls up on this big fucking mountain
it is a big enough mountain
that it is named Big Bend mountain
so the railroad crew is all like welp
better get ready to go around this mountain huh
and the stupid motherfuckers from C&O
are like NOPE
GOIN’ THROUGH THE MOUNTAIN
STRAIGHT THROUGH
IT IS ONLY LIKE A MILE AND A HALF THICK
YOU GUYS LIKE HAVING JOBS RIGHT
SO DO IT

so they do it
most of these guys are freed slaves
so they don’t exactly have their pick of employment opportunities
this goes double for John Henry
who is not only a freed slave
but also an UNSTOPPABLE BADASS WHO NEVER QUITS
so every day all the steel-drivers go to work
and they fling themselves mercilessly at this mountain
and like 20 people die
and get buried in shallow graves outside the tunnel
people are dying left and right
and up and down
and pretty much any direction you can die in
but john henry just keeps abusing that stone
making a solid ten foot tunnel every day
AT LEAST

so, you know, great for him
but all his friends are still dead
and the dicks at C&O are getting impatient
so when this travelling salesman shows up
all like HEY GUYS I HAVE A STEAM POWERED DRILL MACHINE
IT WILL DRILL THE FUCK OUT OF THIS MOUNTAIN NO PROBLEM
they are like SIGN US UP
and by the way all you people who work for us are fired
ESPECIALLY JOHN HENRY

now john henry is the kind of man
who takes no guff from anybody
it is unreal how little guff this man takes
like if there is a great big pile of guff by the side of the road
and john henry walked by
that pile would remain completely undisturbed
because he would take none of it
so when he sees this guff coming his way
like a shitstorm rockslide avalanche of guff
he just sidesteps that shit
and is like hey travelling salesman
i bet i can drill harder
better
faster
and stronger than your pussyass machine
and the travelling salesman is like YOU’RE ON

so the next day John henry lines up next to this machine
along with his trusty shaker Little Bill
and TWO TWENTY POUND HAMMERS
and they get to work

now this steam drill
is pretty fast
it is like CHUFF CHUFF CHUFF BITCHES
but meanwhile John henry is pretty fast too
all like WAM BAM CLANK DING MOTHERFUCKER
i dont know what hammers sound like
anyway the drill and john are pretty much neck to neck
maybe the drill is even doing a little better
but then it gets STUCK
it gets jammed in a hole in the rock
and john henry just goes grunting and flailing and sweating
FOUTEEN FEET INTO THE HEART OF THAT MOUNTAIN
BAM CLINK CACHANG POW BOOM PEW PEW PEW

so final score:
newfangled steam drill
nine feet
one man armed with nothing but sweat and gumption
and two twenty pound hammers:
fourteen feet
oh wait
did i forget to mention
that since john henry was using two hammers
he drilled TWO HOLES
while the steam drill only made ONE
so really the score was nine to TWENTY FUCKING EIGHT

yeah
but then bad news guys
john henry puts down his hammers
and dies
because he just hammered that rock so hard
he gave himself a fucking stroke
it doesnt say in the ballad
but i like to think
that his last words
were something like

…damn right

anyway then he was dead
so i think they end up using the steam drill anyway
although they have to cancel work for like a week
because everyone is convinced john henry’s ghost lives in the tunnel
also later on
it turns out that the tunnel is notoriously unstable
and it ends up collapsing a ton of times
but none of that matters
because the real hero of this story
is Little Bill
who held two drills
right next to his body
against a solid stone wall
while an absurdly muscular dude
repeatedly charged towards him
flailing two twenty pound hammers
and he kept holding those drills
and turning them
and shaking out the stone debris
and switching out the drills when they got dull
FOR THIRTY FIVE MINUTES
AND TWENTY-EIGHT FEET
and also
lived through the whole thing
didn’t have a stroke
or even shit himself in panic
so let’s hear it for little bill
real American hero

The End

(Coming Thursday: Paul Bunyan)

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8 thoughts on “John Henry was a Steel-Drivin’ Man

  1. this fucking rocked.
    seriously, i loved this. it made me wonder if you've read american gods, by neil gaiman. he takes on the question of whether or not america has a mythology. seems like it would be right up your alley..

  2. HEY SO WOULD YOU MIND HORRIBLY IF I RECORDED MYSELF READING THESE AND POSTED THEM FOR MY FRIENDS?

    I already read them out loud to my girlfriend (myths are totes oral history, you know) and she loves it, so I thought I could do that, if you didn't mind.

  3. You can do it, but only if you start each recording with THIS ISNT BY ME ITS BY THIS GUY NAMED FROSTY AND HE'S REALLY FUCKING COOL. Also i wanna link to them from this site.

  4. I know more greek myths than norse ones, and I grew up in sweden.

    I think the reason is the ancient greece is somehow THE PINNACLE OF HUMAN ACHIEVEMENT, which is sort of weird, since we’ve done so much more awesome stuff since. LAND ON THE MOON MUCH ANCIENT GREECE?

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