Monday, June 07, 2010

General Ludd vs. John Henry

A while ago I went to a talk by the great radical historian Peter Linebaugh on 'The Invisibility of the Commons' . In the course of it he compared the two 19th century songs, John Henry and General Ludd's Triumph, as reflecting two approaches to work - suggesting that maybe one had historically been more typical of the US working class and the other of the working class in England.

In the former American song, the railway bosses' introduction of a steam-powered hammer to replace human labour is viewed as a challenge by Henry the 'steel drivin' man', who works hard to demonstrate his superior power even at the cost of his own life - he beats the hammer only to die as a result. An assertion of the dignity of labour at one level, but also a willingness to compete with mechanisation by voluntarily intensifying work:

John Henry told his captain
Lord 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

Here's Mississippi Fred McDowell's version:

In the latter English song about the Luddite movement, the introduction of machinery in the cotton industry is responded to not by workers working themselves to death, but by them sentencing the machines to death through sabotage:

Those engines of mischief were sentenced to die
By unanimous vote of the trade,
And Ludd who can all opposition defy
Was the grand executioner made.

And when in the work he destruction employs,
Himself to no method confines;
By fire and by water he gets them destroyed,
For the elements aid his designs.

Here's a version by The Fucking Buckaroos (personally I prefer the version by Chumbawamba, but it's not on youtube):

Admittedly, on the basis of these versions, John Henry is a better song, even if it's not a better strategy...

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