Herb’s Blog, Herbdate 22333 – 801:
Here’s the haps:
John and Simon Take It On the Road – By Herb
When Simon was a little baby Sittin' on his daddy's knee He picked up a pencil and a piece of graph paper and said, I'm going to make something keen Lord, Lord But I'll make this little drawing first, Lord, Lord But I will make a drawing first Over the years, Simon invented He designed quite a few things But none of them were really big And none of them could make you sing, Lord, Lord None of them could make you want to sing Simon invented a steam drill Unlike others it was portable And it turned the bit automatically And so he tried really hard to make a sale Lord, Lord He tried really hard to make a sale The Boss Man, he said to Simon Go ahead and bring your machine around I'll give it a try against my best worker and we'll see just what it can do Lord, Lord Let's see what this thing will do You know the Ballad of John Henry And how the race was won The steam drill only made nine feet John Henry did fifteen and he was done Lord, Lord He collapsed in a heap and he was done Simon walked away dejected He had lost the race and he had lost face But he didn't lose a sale that day Lord, Lord He made a sale that day You see, John Henry didn't die that day The way some storytellers say He rose up and said, "Simon let's make us a deal We can both make out real good Using your machine to drive steel Lord, Lord Simon, let's make us a deal." Simon and John Henry Went to mining towns and rail They set up the folks a week or two before And got set up for a big race Lord, Lord A Man Versus Machine Big Race John Henry would say to the Captain Go ahead and bring that steam drill 'round Before a machine can get the best of me I'll die with a hammer in my hand Lord, Lord I'll die with my hammer in my hand Well, Simon and the steam drill would make it nine feet John Henry would make eight and half Simon made a sale and covered John's "funeral" Then they'd go to the bank and they'd laugh Lord, Lord How Simon and John Henry Laughed
They used to teach The Ballad of John Henry in school when I was a boy and there are so many versions of this folk song/folktale/bit-of-Americana/folklore that it would be impossible to get into all of the versions out there. I guess you would probably have to classify John Henry with other heroes and folk heroes like Davy Crockett, Paul Bunyan, Ole Svenson, Pecos Bill and others. And like those guys, there was probably some real person of origin, like Davy Crockett. He was a real man but did he really kill a bear when he was three?
I hadn’t thought about the story of John Henry for a long time but then I read a very different, more serious, man versus machine type story on Haoyan Do called Superfluity which was a worthwhile read but got me to thinking about the whole theme. On one trivia site it mentioned that the first written speeding ticket was given to Harry Meyers of Dayton, OH in 1904 for going a terrifying twelve miles per hour! There is also an earlier story of a New York taxi driver in 1899 going twelve miles per hour where the speed limit was eight miles per hour and four miles per hour when turning. The way I remember the story is that he was immediately arrested by a bicycle-police officer and taken to jail. Many men of science at the birth of the railroads warned that if a human being were to travel over thirty miles per hour that severe brain damage and psychiatric problems would result (Dumbest Blogger noted somewhere when I mentioned this that maybe they were right.). While there are still communities scattered around the country that use horses and buggies the majority of US citizens use more modern modes of transportation. Machines won.
Anyway, my mind wandered around and got to wondering what happened to the guy with the steam drill? In my wanderings and wondering, I learned that the miners would take a steel bit and one guy, called the “shaker” would hold the bit and another guy with a sledgehammer would hit it, then the shaker would turn the bit until the hole would be big enough for a stick of dynamite. Ben told me that they actually would take turns and each guy would do one job sixty times, then switch.
Simon Ingersoll was a mechanical engineering genius and inventor but by the accounts I read, not a very interesting fellow. Certainly not the type of inventor/showman/con man(?) that Thomas Edison was, but more like the character of Caractacus Pott of Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang fame. Whether you know know the Dick Van Dyke movie version or the Ian Fleming book version you have a guy always tinkering with something and a house and barn full of interesting but unprofitable machines. Take the personality down a couple of notches and there’s Simon Ingersoll. He could barely support his family by farming and sold off his patents to make ends meet.
But what if he had the marketing savvy of an Edison or a Barnum? Or even a Buffalo Bill, for that matter? That’s where my version of The Ballad of Simon Ingersoll came from. I know that mechanically and metrically it really, really stinks but other than that I like it. In my defense, there are so many versions of the original song that it was hard to keep it straight. Plus, while I like the original version, I also really liked this Smothers Brothers version. The SmoBros made a few different versions but this was the one that would allow me to maintain my “G” rating which is very important to me.
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