Greil Marcus is the author of Mystery Train, Dead Elvis, and The Shape of Things to Come. With Sean Wilentz he edited The Rose & the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad, and with Werner Sollors, A New Literary History of America.
For three minutes, it’s as if Hooker has just woken up from a dream and is trying to remember it. The song as such is nothing but fragments, fragments of fragments.
An OA playlist: There are thousands of versions of the song “John Henry,” and every one, Greil Marcus argues in “Guitar Drag,” is “an affirmation of the power of a single African American to deny and defeat the white power set against him even if it costs him his life, but not his dignity, with the song rolling down the decades from the 1920s.” As a companion to the essay, Marcus offers this playlist, his choice of the versions of “John Henry” that stand out among the others.
An excerpt from The History of Rock 'N' Roll in Ten Songs, this stacked review of artist Christian Marclay's video Guitar Drag and Colson Whitehead's novel John Henry Days explores a history of racial injustice through the legend of John Henry.