18 MAY 1991, Page 48

New life

American hero

Zenga Longmore

With difficulty I negotiated Omalara and her pushchair over the jagged, broken paving stones that mark my approach to Brixton Market. Stones that were once the pride of far Caithness (home of all good paving stones) had taken a sorry battering from ten-ton lorries short-cutting the cor- ners. 'This must be what they mean by 'the crack-ridden inner city,' I said grimly to myself, as drowsy Omalara was jerked once more into wakefulness.

Seeing my old friend Clawhammer Jones Bingo strumming a guitar and selling his wares at his bush tea stall, I hurried over. Longstanding readers with long memories to match may recall that last week I vowed to find out who John Henry might be. The charismatic opera star Gregg Baker, whose voice forms one of the highlights of Carmen Jones, told me that his dream was to play John Henry, 'the black folk hero'. Clawhammer knows America, as he used to pick crops in Florida and still keeps in touch with his old crop-picking cronies. He might, for all I knew, have run into this Henry personality.

`Sarasee for you an' me — if you don't tink it good, just try it and see,' he warbled. `Oh, hello, Zenga, man.'

`Listen, Claw, have you heard of a black American hero called John Henry?' I asked. 'A famous opera singer was talking about him the other day, and it's made me curious.'

`John Henry? That's a common name down Stateside,' he ruminated. 'Do you suppose he mean the John Henry who worked lining the New York-Miami rail- road? That was before my time, but in demma day they had a whole heap o' men who hammered steel pins into the rails to fasten them down. Then someone invent a mechanical drill that did the same work. Rockstone! You can imagine the vexation of all the workers dem who' stood to lose their jobs. But big John Henry, ah, he was nothing if not bodacious, he show the boss- man that he could work faster than the machine. They held a contest an' Mr Henry did drive more steel than the drill. But then the poor man 'im drop dead with a heart attack. That was the end of John Henry.'

`Is that all?' I said.

`Well, there's a song "John Henry" that's a fast blues for dancing, gonna tell ya all about it now:'

John Henry hammer in the mountain, Hammer flying down like rain.

Hung his hammer on a likkle blue point Saying 'Lord, I'm a steel driving man!'

`What's the point?' I enquired.

`What point?'

`The little blue point. Why? For what reason?'

`Me nah know,' replied the Claw enig- matically, and continued to croon seven more verses of the song. By the time he had finished I gathered that John Henry had as many girlfriends as there are colours of dress. When the eighth verse had revealed that the woman whose dress was red had gone where John Henry fell dead, Clawhammer laid down his guitar and looked at me triumphantly. Omalara caught his eye and clapped merrily. `Moral: you can't beat progress!' the bard announced severely.

`No, but at least John Henry did his best to defy it,' I mused. 'He really was a hero.'

But later, when I had thought it over, another moral occurred to me. John Henry represented the warmth, humanity and san- ity of some black Americans, as opposed to the technology-crazed world of President Bush and his pushbutton colleagues.