I do bodywork for a living. For fun I torture myself daily with big stacks of iron plates. Somewhere in the house I have a bachelor’s in literature from one of those small eccentric colleges of which guidance counselors say, as mine said to me, “Try ******. Everyone there is a little strange and people won’t notice you so much.”
Tennessee Ernie Ford’s 45 of Sixteen Tons — and the flip side, John Henry — either marked me for life or just spoke to what I was already “about” at the age of around four. I was too young to grasp the working-class desperation of the songs, but something about the idea of human will wedded with physical power grabbed me and never let me go. I remember sitting on the floor by the couch, playing that record over and over, reading books about Joan of Arc and Marie Curie. Today I’m still a stew of tomboy heretic, experimenter, and physical laborer, with my nose in a book. And I don’t listen to much country music, but I still choke up on the lines
John Henry’s hammer drove fifteen feet / And the steam drill only made nine.
As for Sixteen Tons, the only line that makes me wince now is “A mind that’s weak and a back that’s strong.” We get brains and a body in this life. We’d be pikers not to max out both of them. If I don’t do anything else with this blog, maybe I’ll make some more friends who feel the same way.