A favorite subject of American folk songs is the legend of John Henry, yet few of the songs actually describe what John Henry did. He swung a hammer, according to legend, “steep-nosed” and 9 pounds in weight, fixed to the end of a 4-foot switch handle (that being a stout wood lever a “switchman” used to change track directions).
His hammer struck the end of a steel chisel called a star drill, often up to 4 feet in length, with four points arranged in a cross on its gently flared end. The chisel was held in place by a “shaker,” an entry-level worker whose job was to rotate the star drill about 90 degrees between every blow, to chip away a little piece of the boulder being penetrated.
The boulders were Appalachian granite that stood in the way of a rail line’s progress. The holes he made were stuffed with dynamite to blast the rock into pieces small enough to push out of the way. The work was as grueling and hazardous as any work imaginable.
Most of the songs mention a “contest” between John Henry and a machine—what we today could call a “robot”—the classic standoff between man and automation. John Henry’s tale was about more than a contest between meat and metal, though. It was also about the dignity of work and the value of everyone’s effort, and it stands as a basis for proponents of a “living wage” in today’s inhumanely ruthless economy, where lower esteemed workers get paid less and less, and the well-connected get paid more and more.
Every garbage collector’s work is every bit as valuable as that of any silk-suited CEO that reclines behind a desk made of rare rainforest lumber. The upper end of that work scale sees itself as simply being smart and talented instead of just lucky.