In West Virginia I went for a drive one fine day, leaving Kacy and Craig for some father-daughter bonding time. It was gorgeous; the trees, the mountain roads leading me up and down in elevation, the occasional opening of the foliage to provide striking views of Appalachia hillsides.
I found myself in Talcott. I parked, wandered the brick streets of this small town, and enjoyed watching the river flow under my feet when standing on the cement bridge spanning the New River. Then I popped into the Railroad museum, really just because it was open and I hadn't much else of consequence to do. It was there that I met India, a lovely woman in her 80's with well-combed silver hair and a railroad badge above her nametag. She told me the history of the New River Train (you may know the folk song), the Great Bend Tunnel (where John Henry, if he existed, hammered his fool self to death), and local railroad heroes. This town was built on coal and railroad.
In the museum were some amazing wooden figures, carved by a local some decades ago, representing all of the roles of a railroad team. At the head, under the arch of the Great Bend Tunnel stands John Henry himself, the black steel driver. Before him kneels his shaker, the man holding the spike to be hammered. Read on after the pictures for the history of the figures.
The railroad boss.
The grease monkey.
The camp cook.
Leisure; note the dice and cards.
And it doesn't end there! The next day Kacy and I went driving again and found the Great Bend Tunnel itself. If John Henry lived on this earth, this is where he made history, beating the new machine, the steam drill. Standing at the top of the tunnel, where the road passes over the entrance, is a bronze statue of the man and some fading evidence of Americana tourism. Kacy and I paid tribute; we sat at his feet, pulled out the guitar, and we sang, as I'm sure many have done before.
When John Henry was a little baby boy,
Sitting on the his papa's knee
Well he picked up a hammer and little piece of steel
Said this Hammer's gonna be the death of me, lord, lord
Hammer's gonna be the death of me.
The captain said to John Henry
I'm gonna bring that steam drill around
I'm gonna bring that steam drill out on the job
I'm gonna whop that steel on down, lord,
Whop that steel on down.
John Henry told his captain,
Man, a man ain't nothing but a man
But before I'd let your steam drill beat me down
I'd die with a hammer in my hand, lord lord,
Die with a hammer in my hand.
John Henry said to his shaker,
"Shaker why don't you sing"?
Because I'm swinging thirty pounds from my hips on down
Just listen to that cold steel ring, lord lord.
Listen to that cold steel ring.
Now the captain said to John Henry,
I believe that mountain's caving in.
John Henry said right back to the captain
Ain't nothing but my hammer sucking wind, lord lord.
Nothin' but my hammer suckin' wind.
Now the man that invented the steam drill
He thought he was mighty fine
But John Henry drove fifteen feet,
And the steam drill only made nine, lord.
Steam drill only made nine.
John Henry hammered in the mountains.
His hammer was striking fire.
But he worked so hard, it broke his poor heart
And he laid down his hammer and he died, oh lord.
Laid down his hammer and he died.
Now John Henry had a little woman,
Her name was polly Anne
John Henry took sick and had to go to bed
Polly Anne drove steel like a man, lord lord.
Polly Anne drove steel like a man.
John Henry had a little baby
You could hold him in the palm of your hand.
And saddest words I heard that poor boy say,
"My daddy was a steel driving man, oh lord."
"My daddy was a steel driving man."
Now every Monday morning
When the blue birds begin to sing,
You can hear John Henry a mile or more,
You can hear John Henry's hammer ring, lord lord.
You can hear John Henry's hammer ring.