"The Day John Henry Died" as written by and Jason Isbell....
I watched the rain; it settled in. We disappeared for days again.
Most of us were staying in, lazy like the sky.
The letters flew across the wire filtered through a million liars.
The whole world smelled like burning tires the day John Henry died.

We knew about that big machine that ran on human hope and steam.
Bets on John were far between and mostly on the side.
We heard he put up quite a fight. His hands and feet turned snowy white.
That hammer rang out through the night the day John Henry died.

When John Henry was a little bitty baby nobody ever taught him how to read
But he knew the perfect way to hold a hammer was the way the railroad baron held the deed.

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.

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 its name.

So pack your bags, we're headed west and L.A. ain't no place to rest.
You'll need some sleep to pass the test, so get some on the flight
And say your prayers John Henry Ford 'cause we don't need your work no more.
You should have known the final score the day John Henry died.

Lyrics submitted by TonyRo2

"The Day John Henry Died" as written by Jason Isbell

Lyrics © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd.

Lyrics powered by LyricFind

The Day John Henry Died song meanings
Add your thoughts


sort form View by:
  • 0
    General Commentgreat song
    elurkeron November 27, 2004   Link
  • 0
    General CommentThis is an awesome song. So many great lines: "John Henry was a steel drivin' bastard, but John Henry was a bastard just the same". I think John Henry is a sort of allegory to the working class, and how big business tramples them. Jason Isbell is one of my favorite lyricists.
    jadyon April 04, 2008   Link
  • 0
    General CommentJohn Henry has always represented the working class and its marginalization in the face of the industrial revolution. I love the juxtaposition of the black folk hero with the white auto baron known for the assembly line, harbinger of the coming obsession with efficiency.

    Ultimately John's performance in the contest is meaningless. He wins the contest but dies and the machine slides seamlessly into his place. The work continues. A human cog exchanged for a metal one and nothing more.

    My question is with the significance of going to LA. Any thoughts?
    mikedmostdon May 01, 2008   Link
  • 0
    General CommentWell you're right about the meaning, but while I agree very strongly that we should not be machines, I don't agree that a machine to help us with our labor is a bad thing. You have anything against the wheel? You like your computer? You know how it was made?

    There's nothing wrong with efficiency. Wasting money is not something to be excited about. I would be happier if this song didn't criticize the machine that took John Henry's job and helped us build the railroads, but the thousands of machines that said nothing about John Henry's family being kidnapped from their home and sold as property.
    wvmtneeron September 05, 2008   Link
  • 0
    General CommentA good point, wvmntneer. I'm no Luddite and will certainly affirm the many great benefits wrought by the industrial revolution. I also don't think the song is pointed solely at machines. There is definitely a critique of the old ways, the cavalier attitude towards human life. In that way the machine is certainly a step up for human life.

    In the end Isbell seems to be asking more about the place of working class people in the modern world. For better or worse John's job is gone and with it a way of life. His contemporaries must move to urban centers and make a go of it there. But how? Do they go back to school to get better jobs? Go to work repairing the very machines doing their old jobs? That might not be a negative but there's always a place to dwell on the end of an era.
    mikedmostdon October 03, 2008   Link
  • 0
    General CommentThe first few verses are well written and straight forward, John Henry, hero of the working class died with the industrial revolution. The worker can do all that a machine can do but not as cheaply. The last line is about the band leaving the south and their working class background for a life of rock and roll. The last two lines make this pretty clear, the working class job is gone for them, on to rock and roll life.
    sputty3204on April 28, 2010   Link
  • 0
    General CommentWhat's up with the John Henry Ford comment?
    PMantleon September 07, 2012   Link
  • -1
    General CommentIn the last verse, Isbell is akin to a modern day guitar slinging John Henry, both using unique skills they were born with. He feels like just a cog in the wheels of the music industry to be used until broken then replaced. But if he don't bust his ass flying to L.A.(or anywhere else a long distance from home) with no rest in sight, then some other bastard will.

    John Henry and Isbell both know its futile to fight the man but are compelled to do it anyway. Free will? To some extent. But fighting the man on the way out makes for a great tale.
    DBT dadon December 07, 2008   Link

Add your thoughts

Log in now to tell us what you think this song means.

Don’t have an account? Create an account with SongMeanings to post comments, submit lyrics, and more. It’s super easy, we promise!

Back to top