Song of the Week: “The Day John Henry Died” by Drive-By Truckers

by Douglas Cowie on 8 February 2013

Each Friday I pick a song–new, old, borrowed, blue–that’s been on my mind and in my ears, and write a short post about it.

Here’s a song about the day John Henry died:

Drive-By Truckers: “The Day John Henry Died”

The main thing I like about this song is that it’s a reimagination of the folk song, “John Henry”, about the man who could drive steel as fast as the steam engine that would replace him.  John Henry wins a race against the engine, but it kills him.

That same story swirls around the edges of this song, but with hints of wider perspectives of industrial progress and decline.  Essentially, it takes the core of the folk song and makes something new of it, but without changing whatsoever that essential core.  This, friends, is smart lyric writing, and it’s enveloped in a pretty and straight-up piece of country music.

As a bonus, the person who posted this video on You Tube has reinvented the song one more time, as a kind of eulogy to an ornery racehorse.

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