Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Jeff Rosen's Essay on John Henry's Rage Against The Machine

How old memories, and an even older folk song, reinvent the human struggle." ~Jeff Rosen

This past week a friend passed along a link to a thought-provoking essay by Jeff Rosen titled "John Henry’s Rage Against The Machine." It begins with our need for heroes, then walks us back through time to the reason(s) why folk music had such power and resonance. Finally he zeroes in on his target, the familiar John Henry, and what that man's story was really all about.

Each paragraph in the essay offers something to chew on and dissect. Rosen begins thus:

"America seems in desperate need of heroes. It may be impossible to be a hero in our current era. There is too much news, too much information. Heroes need mystery. They do not need 24-hour news channels, muckraking websites or ironic television talk show hosts. Could Winston Churchill be considered heroic today? Overweight, elitist, cigar smoking, pompous and mannered, but his acts of single-mindedness and unshakeable conviction led him to a heroic stand against one of the great military juggernauts in history."

Yes, and yes. In the subsequent paragraph he talks about how fake and transparent the modern attempts, by means of media machinations, of fabricating heroes has become. How unsung our real heroes are.

"So where are our great men and women? Where are our heroes? Let us look at the relatively recent tragedy of September 11. There was a feeble attempt to make a hero out of Rudy Guiliani, but the public did not buy it. They knew the real heroes of September 11 remained nameless and faceless. The firefighters, policemen, security guards, who raced back into the burning building. The passengers on the airplane who overcame the terrorists in the face of certain death. But these heroes remain completely unknown, faceless … unsung."

Rosen makes an interesting observation about one of the things that has changed over time, that is, how the ability to record music and distribute it has changed the way we hear music. The old folk songs that were handed down have reached us because they were all good in one way or another. Who would want to keep sharing the crappy ones?

Then he describes a rare piece of videotape that he watched, a recording of Woody Guthrie along with the harmonica and guitar duo Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry singing "John Henry." It moved them powerfully, because though decades had passed, "This song for them is still completely full of meaning. Woody, his eyes closed, his head thrown back. Sonny Terry, his hands cupped over the harmonica. Brownie McGee leaning in towards Woody to sing the chorus in unison, 'Whomp that steel on down.'”

The real takeaway for Rosen is why John Henry, both the song and the man, really mattered. In the telling of the story we understand that ultimately it's about human dignity.

Two recent books have been written about John Henry, each trying to find the real man who lived these deeds. But Rosen states these authors have missed the point. "The point is that John Henry is a hero, not because he was willing to lay his life down by throwing his body on the hand grenade of the industrial revolution, but because he refuses to let the meaning be drained from his life. His life is his work."

The industrial age has now yielded to the digital age, and in a variety of new ways technology is stripping still more lives of their meaning. Numerous writers have addressed this in the past hundred years. I think of Hesse's Benath the Wheel, Ellul's The Technological Society and Huxley's Brave New World. And I think of Dylan's Dignity, a song about a narrator searching high and low, far and wide, to find any vestige of this essential human trait.

So many roads, so much at stake
So many dead ends, I’m at the edge of the lake
Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take
To find dignity

Read Jeff Rosen's essay and tell me what you think. 

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