The Legend of John Henry's Hammer

Media Type: Music Topic: Opportunity Cost

Johnny Cash

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The song, The Legend of John Henry's Hammer by Johnny Cash, is an example of both the struggles of living during the Industrial Revolution and how hard a man has to work to take care of his family.  The song begins with John Henry, as a child, as his father wakes him with some urgent advice:

"Johnny Henry's pappy work him up one midnight.
He said, 'Before the sheriff comes I wanna tell you.' Said, 'Listen, boy.
Learn to hoist a jack and learn to lay a track, learn to pick and shovel, too.
And take that hammer; it'll do anything you tell it to.'"

In economics, capital is one of the four categories of scarce resources and examples include buildings, equipment and the varied specialized skills that are necessary to produce goods and services in the economy.  The jack, railroad track, pick, shovel, and hammer are examples of physical capital.  The specialized knowledge and ability required to use these tools effectively is an example of human capital.

As the song continues, Cash explains that Henry had to work even harder to make money for his family.  He sings:

"John Henry's Mammy had about a dozen babies.
John Henry's Pappy broke jail about a dozen times.
The babies all got sick and when the doctor wanted money,
He said, 'I'll pay you a quarter at a time startin' tomorrow,
That's the pay for a steel driver on this line.'"

We have learned in class that opportunity cost is the value of the best alternative forgone when an item or activity is chosen.  John Henry worked so that his family could be healthy and happy and these lyrics represent an example of his opportunity cost.  John Henry gave up leisure for labor in order to make the money his family needed.

Near the end of the ballad, Johnny Cash reveals that machines are replacing John Henry's manpower by singing:

"But the bad boys came up laughin' at John Henry.
They said, 'You're full of vinegar now, but you 'bout through!
We gonna get a steam drill to do your share of drivin',
Then what's all them muscles gonna do?  Huh, John Henry?
Gonna' take a little bit of vinegar out of you.'"

During the Industrial Revolution, the replacement of men with machines became increasingly more common.  These lyrics identify an example of a technological change, a discovery that would allow an economy to use resources more efficiently.  A positive change in efficiency would move the Production Possibilities Frontier (PPF curve) outward.

Song commentary provided by:

Kim Holder, University of West Georgia

Adaptation from student work submitted by A. McFalls and K. Shiflett (ECON 2105-04, Fall 2010)

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