Manly Songs & John Henry

Well, it took me a while to post on the latest poll, but here it is. Manliest song on the list was Mannish Boy by Muddy Waters. I've posted video of the top three songs on the list. All are, indeed, manly.

I have a soft spot for each of these songs, although perhaps least (of these three) for the winner, Mannish Boy. It's a fun song, it's a great song. But it's the refrain everyone thinks of..."I'm a man!" Not as noble as the other two songs, though; in fact, having to insist that you're a man makes it less likely that you are. And I'm not sure if a "rolling stone" and a "hoochi-coochie man" is as manly as it gets. After all, how many blues songs advise us to stay away from rolling stones and rambling men? We all know what happens to ramblers and gamblers.

Anywho, I'll go ahead and get off my high horse. A little bit.

John Henry is such an epic figure, and such an epic Christ figure in some of the tellings, that I've got John Henry in the stable of names I'd put on one of my own kids. I highly recommend the children's book by Julius Lester, illustrated by the inimitable Jerry Pinckney.

Woody Guthrie (in the video below) and Pete Seeger (voiceover in the video below) were two communist/socialist white men who turned John Henry into what he's become American myth about the worker. He's still a complex figure, but the dominant theme is John Henry as The Working Man.

The "real" John Henry, by which I mean Story John Henry, not whatever actual man (who would have been fascinating to know) he was, was a savior in a bigger sense that included The Working Man's Messiah sense. John Henry was born not only with a hammer in his hands, but with all the animals, and the sun and the moon, longing to serve him. He was as gentle as he was strong. When he spun his hammers, rainbows wrapped themselves around his shoulders. He descended under the mountain to keep his fellows from having to, and he ascended out the other side after defeating the monster. And then he died. So it might be a little out of order, but come on, that's some awesome stuff.

So three cheers for John Henry!

And of course I'll be a good sport about Mannish Boy besting John Henry in the poll. :-)


  1. What about Cash's "Boy Named Sue"?

  2. I was all in on the Boxer, but I gotta agree with you, there is something unmanly about having to repeat "I'm a man" over and over again...I mean, common, who are we trying to convince here? It makes me think of the guy mumbling behind his dominating wife. You know that's the song he's singing to himself throughout the actual emasculating circumstances. John Henry really had it going on though! I'm just glad "I'm too sexy" didn't top the list! ;)

  3. Don, that one definitely should have been on the list!


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