I have been on a major Jason Isbell kick lately, mostly because I’m gearing up for his new solo record Southeastern, which comes out next month. If the advance singles for this are any indicator (here is a particularly poignant new track streaming at Garden & Gun), its going to be one hell of an album. So in honor of this recent Isbell binge, today we have one of my all-time favorite train songs. Before his illustrious and productive career as a solo artist with his backing band the 400 Unit, Isbell was an integral piece of the Drive-By Truckers line-up that cranked out classic after classic in the early 2000s. Southern Rock Opera, Decoration Day and The Dirty South, stand as a three-album run unmatched in quality by hardly any other band. Part of the strength of these albums comes from the triple-threat songwriting prowess of Isbell, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. The three frontmen traded off songs on Truckers albums, though the Isbell ones always were my favorites.
As someone obsessed with trains, it should thus come as no surprise that The Day John Henry Died is my all-time favorite Drive-By Truckers song. Written by Isbell, its off of The Dirty South and like much of the Truckers repertoire, it deals with the dark underbelly of the South. The legend of John Henry, the convict laborer literally worked to death while digging a railroad tunnel in West Virginia, fits right in with the bootleggers, crooked lawmen, feuding families, deadbeat fathers, and down-on-their luck working-class men and women that populate the Truckers’ world. The song is mostly a basic retelling of the John Henry legend, but there are so many great lyrical turns of phase in here I don’t know where to start. Isbell describes, “that big machine that ran on human hope and steam,” and he contrasts the plight of John Henry with the men who ran the railroad – “he knew the perfect way to hold a hammer, was the way the railroad baron held the deed.” In my day job, I study industrialization and the spread of capitalism in the 19th century south, and its hard to find a more poignant encapsulation of this sweeping historical transformation than the line “an engine never thinks about his daddy and an engine never needs to write his name.”
John Henry remains such a powerful figure in American culture for the way he speaks to these universal struggles of the industrial age. His story resonates for any worker displaced by mechanization, this century or the last, and for anyone who feels crushed by the weight of larger forces outside their control or beaten down by large corporations. Indeed, the last stanza of the song speaks to the modern day relevance of the John Henry story, as Isbell compares Henry’s saga to the plight of the modern-day musician, shipping across the country with no sleep to play a show in LA, and ground up by the gears of the music industry machine. Its also a story that speaks to the plight of the modern-day southern working class (“they changed the way his job was done, labor costs were high”) – a common topic of the Drive-By Truckers discography.
Despite the tragic subject matter, I have always found the song to be uplifting. Perhaps this is due to the universality of the John Henry story – we have all at one time felt crushed by the machine of modern life. The fact that the song also rocks really hard, with a driving drumbeat, and the always-excellent guitar heroics of the Truckers, also helps lend an element of hope to this sad tale.
This live acoustic version is also pretty good. Without the backing band takes on a more mournful tone, which changes the tone of the song, but I think it fits well. Sadly, the song never made it into the setlist in the two times I have seen Isbell live in Gainesville. Incidentally, in this version Isbell says the song was written after the death of his grandfather, which lends another layer of meaning to this excellent song.