Cultural Appropriation in Steele Driving Man
In his book Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend historian Scott Reynolds Nelson explores the origins of the American folk hero, John Henry, and uncovers truths about how the steel driving man became such an American icon. Nelson maps the journey of the folktale in the music industry from its infancy as an old miner’s/railroad worker’s song to a mainstream country song. John Henry’s ballad remains timeless and so successful because it “symbolized the work of thousands” (chapter 7) represents and the common struggles of the working man as technology takes over which almost every generation faces. The ballad’s universal message has helped musicians of all different genres touch the hearts of their audiences, but some of these musicians unfairly manipulated the ballad in pursuit of fame. In this essay, the unfair manipulation of the ballad by Fiddlin’ John Carson will be focused on through the scope of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is defined as the instance of one culture taking from another culture, oftentimes unfairly or unethically. Fiddlin’ John Carson appropriated the ballad of John Henry from black culture through his manipulation of the lyrics and by concealing his past.
The story of John Henry’s struggle resonates the struggle of black men and women in American society and holds a precious place in black culture to this day. Without black men and women, the ballad of John henry would not have spread throughout the country and become the classic it now is Nelson even goes as far to say, “The trailblazers were African American track liners and construction workers, whose gang-labor songs would be transformed into individual songs, to be sung as blues, folk, and country music” (chapter 7) showing how integral the ballad had become within African American culture. If not for black songsters the story of John Henry would never have reached the ears of Carson who would later go on to record his rendition of the ballad.
Fiddlin’ John Carson was a southern born musician who was the first artist to record John Henry’s ballad on the radio. Carson grew up in Atlanta, Georgia in a mixed-race community where he was exposed to African American culture. Carson worked alongside black men from a young age so he “would have heard the song as a waterboy for trackliners on the Marietta & North Georgia Railroad” (chapter 7) rather than hearing about it from songsters. Carson “turned the music he heard into his own brand of musical performance, part singing, part talking, part humor” (chapter 7) taking his environmental influences and manipulating them to fit white culture. Once Carson became popular through the ballad he began to deny his affiliations with black culture. Carson went as far to say that “my maw threw her dishwater over into Tennessee” (chapter 7) to show that he was not influenced by African American culture by moving his backstory from Georgia’s high black population to Tennessee’s mostly white population. Carson denied his own backstory just so he would not be grouped in with African Americans, yet he stole from their culture without remorse. Even within the lyrics of Carson’s rendition of John Henry he neglects to mention that John Henry is a black man so many people “assumed that John Henry was white” (chapter 7). Fiddlin’ John Henry deceived about so many aspects of his life simply to avoid be related to black culture, even though without lack culture he would not have had such a unique voice amongst other musicians. Fiddlin’ John Henry clearly appropriated black culture by not giving credit to his source material and even going as far as to deny his relation to it.