Recommended CDs

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Classic Cash: Blood, Sweat, & Tears

This is an excerpt from a thread about Johnny Cash I made on a messageboard three years ago.

Blood, Sweat and Tears celebrates the American working man - black and white, free, convict, and slave, all those who earn their crust or are forced to labour in the sweat of their brow. The album starts with the grunting of a man sweating in hard physical labour and the sound of an axe swinging against cold steel. This is the prelude to the story of John Henry, a semi-mythical African-American folk hero. To quote Wikipedia:

Like other "Big Men" (Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, Iron John), John Henry served as a mythical representation of a particular group within the melting pot of the 19th-century working class. In the most popular story of his life, Henry is born into the world big and strong. He grows to be one of the greatest "steel-drivers" in the mid-century push to extend the railroads across the mountains to the West. The complication of the story is that, as machine power continued to supplant brute muscle power (both animal and human), the owner of the railroad buys a steam-powered hammer to do the work of his mostly black driving crew. In a bid to save his job and the jobs of his men, John Henry challenges the inventor to a contest: John Henry versus the steam hammer. In the process, he suffers a heart attack and dies.

In modern depictions John Henry is usually portrayed as hammering down rail spikes, but older songs instead refer to him driving blasting holes into rock, part of the process of excavating railroad tunnels and cuttings.

Johnny's version is suitably epic in conception, clocking in at over eight minutes. There is a lot happening in this song - I seem to hear something new every time I play it. The changes of tempo, the vivid narration and characterization of the various protagonists make the song dramatic and moving (particularly in John Henry's death-bed speech to his wife) at the same time. John Henry is taunted:

But the bad boys came up laughin' at John Henry
They said," You're full of vinegar now but you bout' through!
We gonna get a steamdrill to do your share of drivin'
Then what's all them muscles gonna do? Huh? John Henry?
Gonna take a little bit of vinegar out of you."

Hiding in a coal mine during his lunch break, he hears the pit foreman shouting:

Get up whoever you are and get a pickax

Mine me enough to start another hell and keep it burnin'
Mine me enough to start another hell.

Whether slaving down the mine or driving steel (hammering stakes into the ground in order to extend the railroad), the working man's lot is a hard one in this era of American history. But his labour supports his wife and children, whose livelihood is threatened when the boss tries to replace man-muscle with machine power. John Henry takes his stand against the machine in the name of the working man. In the dramatic climax of the song, the Carter Family shout "Go, John Henry!", and the hero responds with real spit-in-your-eye defiance: "I'll die with my hammer in my hand..but I'll be LAUGHIN'!" In the following remarkable sequence, Cash imitates the machine letting off steam in competition with the swing of John Henry's axe. John Henry is victorious, but it costs him his life.

The next song, "Tell Him I'm Gone", is a real blues song of a type not often sung by Cash. It starts with the same pick-hammer sound as heard in John Henry's Hammer. It tells the story of an escapee from a chain gang who sends a message of defiance to the "captain".

Blood Sweat and Tears is the first Cash albumn to feature The Carter Family, the first family of country-folk music. They are Mother Maybelle Carter (on autoharp) and her daughters Anita, Helen, and of course, Johnny's future second wife June. Anita's voice is an important contribution to "Another Man's Done Gone."

This is a work song collected by
those important collectors of American folk songs Alan and John Lomax. It concerns the grim fate of an escaped convict, no doubt a worker in one of the chain gangs of the American South (he could be the escapee we heard in "Tell Him I'm Gone"). Although the song is spare of words, the song does tell us that he was captured and hanged before witnesses, including his own children. The acapella performance by Johnny and Anita is unforgettable. (This is not the song of the same title written by Woody Guthrie and performed by Wilco & Billy Bragg.)

The next song is "Busted," written by Harland Howard. It deals with another aspect of the working man's life in the Depression years (and today!): crippling debt. However, the song is anything but gloomy; as the liner notes suggest, it is almost "philosophically cheerful." Ray Charles had a big hit with this song later.

Light relief is provided by the next song, the story of the famous Irish-American engineer Casey Jones, a real life character, although his story has been embellished in legend. To quote the album liner notes:

In the early morning hours of April 30, 1906, about ten miles north of Canton [Mississippi], Casey and his fireman Sim Webb roared around an S-curve right into the rear of another train. Viewed simply as a chronicle of events, "Casey Jones" is one of the world's most exciting ballads. But it is at the same time a compelling argument for the inevitability of fate. From the very beginning of Johnny Cash's version with its eerie, whippoorwill-like train whistle, we know that Casey is doomed. As Johnny points out, his orders that morning said, in effect, that Casey was "taking a trip to the promised land."

This is followed by "Nine Pound Hammer", a song written by the great Merle Travis, author of several superb songs that sound timeless and traditional to this day. Cash covered his "Loading Coal" (Travis came from a Kentucky mining family) on Ride This Train and would later cover "Dark As A Dungeon" and "Sixteen Guns." "Nine Pound Hammer" is a variant on "hammer" work songs ("Tell Him I'm Gone" shares some of its themes). See this link for an interesting note.

The next song is "Chain Gang"; this time, rather than an escapee, we hear about a prisoner - a "carefree lad that loved to roam", but who was imprisoned on the chain gang for the crime of wandering about with no money in his pocket.

"Waitin' for A Train" is the story of another vagrant - one who travels the country by riding the rails. The price of being free from labour is poverty and homelessness. There is something really lovely and pure in the plaintive way Johnny sings "I haven't got a nickel". Cash re-recorded this one towards the end of his life (it's on the Unearthed boxed set of American Recordings outtakes).

The final song takes us back to the chain gang - "Roughneck" concludes the album on a lighter note. Sheb Wooley's song is about a brawny character who brags "By the time I was five there was no kid alive who could get the best of me"; but now "layin' pipe is ha-a-ard labour." He was "born to be a roughneck." Like "Busted" it takes a semi-humorous, philosophical look at a bleak issue.

Amazingly, this masterpiece (along with the equally excellent "Bitter Tears") has yet to be remastered. Apparently, Johnny Cash's Children's Album was a bigger priority.

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