Sorry John Henry the song has no end
mace dent johnson
I'm not typically one for a Q&A or a talkback. I briefly worked for a director who turned to me after opening night of their show, moments before the talkback, and said “Shall we go?” Apparently, they rarely went to talkbacks or Q&As, not even for their own shows—and I took that permission gratefully.
Still, I was immensely grateful for the more-of-a-comment-than-a-question from Imani Uzuri, acclaimed genre-pushing contemporary vocalist and composer, who was in both the audience and the chorus of Sorry John Henry the song has no end. They said, and I paraphrase, “This was very avant,” and encouraged us to lean into the avant-garde-ness of the project. They said blackness is an avant-garde lived experience and that our performance expressed that, moved through it.
The term “avant-garde” came into vogue in artistic contexts during the first World War. The phrase became popular among a largely white populace of European artists who felt newly confronted by mortality, political immorality, the racial other, and hyper-industrialization. Modern artists sought out new ways to make art that more adequately reflected unprecedented times. “Avant-garde,” which translates to “advance guard,” had its pre-Modernism origins in the context of the battlefield as early as the 15th century. Broad swaths of artists across the political-ideological continuum found meaning in this repurposed military term. They felt their art was pushing up against a real danger, was right on the edge of something destructive, potent, entirely new. These artists felt that it could all come crashing down at any moment—"it” being many things, a construction of pure whiteness, the literal physical world, the state, a rain of missiles. At what felt like the end, artists became, somewhat paradoxically, obsessed with newness.
Uzuri’s comment rang true—we had, in a literal way, created something new, and we were drawing upon shared lived experiences of living through and against impossibilities to do so. But throughout the process of developing Sorry John Henry the song has no end, Ian Askew, the creator of the project and primary artist in residence at BAC, reminded us that we were actually doing something quite old. The project is thinking through, collaging from, and responding to John Henry, the 1940 Broadway musical based on a 1931 novel of the same name by Roark Bradford. Once a first lieutenant in the Coast Artillery during World War I, and later a Trainer in the Navy Reserves during World War II, Bradford was also a white writer who made a living writing stories in convoluted dialect about Black people in the American Southeast.
The Broadway adaptation of John Henry features Bradford’s bizarre, imagined “black” dialect alongside virtuosic performances by Paul Robeson (as John Henry), Ruby Elzy, Josh White, and Bayard Rustin, among others. For the most part, Bradford’s John Henry is a pretty typical John Henry story—perhaps with a bit more latent depression, body horror, and obligatory substance abuse. John Henry is a hard working roustabout, who brazenly goes up against a steam winch, loses, and dies trying. The story backstage was a bit less typical—the Broadway run ended abruptly, just five days after opening, due financial mismanagement and labor exploitation. Despite owing him wages for previous performances and travel, the show’s producers expected Robeson to continue working. Robeson, of course, left the show. This was right at the beginning of Robeson’s journey as a labor organizer, which would eventually land him on federal communism watchlists.
Sorry John Henry the song has no end opens and speaks back to this strange time capsule. At the start of each day at BAC, three of the project’s musicians (Dyani Douze, Eden Girma, and Khari Lucas,) set up their many devices at the center of the room—a sort of altar/machine that grew and adapted over our time in residence and will continue to grow as we build out the project. They plugged in laptops, microphones, and MIDI controllers, and, together with Jasmine Wilson and Joshuah Campbell, warmed up on an impressive assortment of instruments, like mbira, bass, electric guitar, clarinet, saxophone, and an eclectic mix of percussion.
Then, under the direction of Ian Askew, with musical direction from Joshuah Campbell, visits from dancer and choreographer Kiara Benn, and writing and dramaturgical consultation from me, we set out to make music, to sing stories, to find resonances across the long story of John Henry. Ian would say, “Can you take as much time as you need to electronically render a moving steamboat?” and soon we’d be underwater, caught in the work and the waves. From an archive of images, songs, spaces, and figures (collected by Ian in digital and physical archives, like the Harvard University and New York Public Library Theater Collections,) we made a living collage through homage and interrogation of John Henry and John Henry, and the black folks in orbit of both of those stories.
We took an archival-musical approach, working with songs the stars of John Henry were known for performing, like Robeson’s rendition of “Ol’ Man River” and Ruby Elzy’s rendition of “My Man’s Gone Now.” The latter came right at the end of the BAC showing of Sorry John Henry. Vocalist Jasmine Wilson sang the song as two sampled versions of Elzy’s voice, mixed by Khari Lucas and Dyani Douze, echoed in the background. We also took a textual-archival approach. My initial and primary role on the show was the creation of erasure poems from the text of the stage directions of the Broadway musical. These erasure poems became a performance score and a script for monologue, dialogue, and lyrics. We took the words Bradford had written to direct (see: control) black actors on stage, and made something else—something more appropriately absurd, abstract, haunting, haunted.
Everyone on the team, all from different lineages and backgrounds, grew up with John Henry, the American folk hero (and steel driving fool) at the center of stories traced back to the early 20th century in Black America. Maybe there was a flesh and blood John Henry, and maybe there wasn’t, but black people (and others, eventually, of course) have been telling stories about him for a hundred years regardless. The stories have taken countless forms—a cautionary story about overworking, a valiant story about overworking, a story about the body’s limits, a story about the mighty mighty union, a story about union busting, a story about the collective, a story about the individual. A patriotic Disney movie, an episode of SpongeBob Squarepants where SpongeBob, as John Henry, actually wins. Bradford’s tale of jive-talking, adulterating, coke-sniffing black life and work. And now us. As Black Americans, especially those descended from enslaved Africans, how do we make sense of our relationship to work in this country? How do we sing about work in our songs? How do we sing when singing is work, how do we make our work sound like song?
Our howling, lilting, laughing rendition of this story that’s been being told for so long. As I sat on our strange and inverted stage, doing way more singing and performing than I thought I would be doing, (I’m just a writer, I insisted all month, How do I even plug in this mic?,) I crooked my neck to see the audience sitting behind me. They looked, as far as I could tell, pretty unsettled and confused.
During the post-showing Q&A, folks in the audience asked questions about the Broadway musical, struggling to understand how all that could have happened if they had never heard of it. Others wondered about the musical machine we had built in the center of the room before them. What’s with all the chords? Are we supposed to sing too? Bubbling beneath the questions, I sensed a more latent uncertainty—what was that? What is it that I am feeling right now? And I get it—as with much of what is avant-garde, the usual frameworks for engaging with, relating to, and making sense of a thing fall short. It is an uncomfortable feeling.
Many in the room were right there with us, finding their place in or near the thing, finding a way to listen and respond. Others found themselves closer, still, to the story: Early on, Ian had the idea to invite friends, acquaintances, and mentors, to meet with us a bit before the showing and learn some of our call and response songs so that they could sing with us, a revised version of the chorus from Bradford’s text. Members of the chorus spoke of the meditative, immersive, salve-like quality of the thing, washing over them like steam.
We set out to make a thing about John Henry and about John Henry and about work. In appropriately avant-garde fashion, what we made together was also about alienation—the alienation of work, the alienation of the stage, of audience. The alienation of being the subject of a capsized empire, of being already always away from home. This collaboration was a way for us to translate and transform our fears, anxieties, and ecstasies around life and social death, selling labor and making love, being black and making art, and to trace our threads backward alongside autonomous black thought that has been happening forever.
The work-in-progress showing of Sorry John Henry the song has no end was created and performed by Ian Askew, mace dent johnson, Joshuah Brian Campbell, Dyani Douze, Eden Girma, Khari Lucas, and Jasmine Wilson, with additional material from Kiara Benn and Davóne Tines. Developed in collaboration with Morgan Johnson, Gabby Preston, and Lauren Nicholson, and with ongoing support from Wake Forest University.
mace dent johnson is a queer and trans black writer from the south. They grew up in Columbus, Georgia and currently live in St. Louis, Missouri. mace received their MFA in poetry from Washington University in St. Louis in 2021, where they currently serve as the Senior Poet in Residence, teaching poetry to undergraduates. They are a Cave Canem and Watering Hole fellow. mace writes about precious objects, heartbreak, blackness, and the natural world. They also work in collage, essay, and theater.