If Decoration Day was a conscious effort to tell smaller, more personal stories, then its follow-up, The Dirty South, found DBT feeling both their oats and their ambitions again.
While not quite a concept album — there isn’t really a through line here — The Dirty South tackled several Southern-oriented myths, large and small, and one of the key tracks was Jason Isbell’s “The Day John Henry Died.”
The John Henry myth (which it is, even if it’s true) is perhaps the ur-American story about technology taking jobs from the people who used to do them. And naturally, given our propensity for violence and working our asses off, it’s not surprising that — SPOILER ALERT! — John Henry dies while beating the technology that was going to replace him even if he lived.
It didn’t matter if he won, if he lived, or if he’d run.
They changed the way his job was done
Labor costs were high
That new machine was cheap as hell and only John would work as well
So they left him laying where he fell
The day John Henry died.
And of course, as befits a song about a hammering contest, “The Day John Henry Died” is chock full of guitars tunneling through rocks and granite, as Isbell along with Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley never let up, even turing the stop-time parts where it’s basically Isbell and the guitars.
And Isbell comes up with one of his more natural melody lines, so it’s almost impossible not to sing along with him on the bridges:
John Henry was a steel-driving bastard
But John Henry was a bastard just the same
An engine never thinks about his daddy
And an engine never needs to write it’s name
Of course, as we’re trending towards engines that actually think about their daddies, and at the very least exchange smart-ass comments with Bob Dylan in TV commercials, our uneasy relationship to technology continues apace. Said the guy who can’t go anywhere without the mini-computer that’s already diluted his need to hone his math skills and his memory.
“The Day John Henry Died” performed live in 2006
Fan-made video for “The Day John Henry Died”