Okay, I bought this album solely because I heart Hugh Laurie. I was first introduced to his awesomeness (or, rather, His Awesomeness) when he was Prince George in my favorite British comedy of all time, The Blackadder (I still find that Mr. Bean is an absolute waste of Rowan Atkinson’s talents). But as great of an actor/comedian Laurie is, it never occurred to me that he’d be a good musician (although he does tickle the ivories on occasion in House, MD). I was in for an astonishing surprise.
I love this album (and am annoyed that there’s a “bonus track” on iTunes that I didn’t get because I bought the physical album) and this song absolutely cracks me up.
John Henry is, of course, the hero of the tall tale of the man who laid track just as well as any steam engine and is a symbol of the ever-encroaching technology that replaces honest workers. And here is Hugh Laurie’s version of his story:
The parts that crack me up are the descriptions of the two women in John Henry’s life—his “little woman” who has a dress and cooks and his “other woman” who has a name and shares his industry:
John Henry had a little woman
And the dress she wore was red
She walked down the track,
She never looked back,
“I’m going where John Henry fell dead”
This nameless woman is true to her beloved and honoring his memory by visiting either his body or the site of his death.
John Henry had another woman
And her name was Polly Anne
John Henry was taken sick
And he had to go to bed
Polly Anne drove steel like a man
This woman has a name and replaces John Henry when he can work no more—we hear no more about Polly Anne in the song, but still she warrants naming (and praising) above the “little woman”, who next gets told to make dinner:
John Henry told his little woman
Honey fix my supper soon
I’m not really trying to analyze this song too much, but it still cracks me up that John Henry had two women: one was clearly his “public” woman and the other a mistress—and it is the mistress who gets a name.