John Henry, Transcontinental Railroad(s) and Black Code(s)

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“Steel-driving man” John Henry was an African American legend who artist, activist, , DJ and union organizer, brandon king, re-interprets both visually, and as a sound collage riffing off of Paul Robeson’s classic rendition of the song “John Henry Blues.”

John Henry feat. Paul Robeson (subt.le rework) by the artist subt.le and the composer brandon king reinterprets Robeson’s 1943 cover of “John Henry Blues,” a song originally written by Fiddlin John Carson in 1924. Equipment used includes SP404 SX (sampled/recalled sound = acapella of Paul Robeson’s song John Henry, found sound of railroad workers banging steel, and train engine sounds). According to king, “considering the fact that it’s been a century since the original work appeared, subt.le’s sound collage amplifies frequencies that may have already been present within the previous versions adding a texture of sounds that John Henry may have also heard while running his body ragged to the point of death of exhaustion from beating the steam drill.”

painted narrative constructed contours (2023) explores themes presented within the exhibition Understatements: Lost and Found in Asian America – Evolution of Asian American Identity through sharing intersections between Asian, Native and African subjectivity, discrimination, and westward expansion of the U.S. settler colonial project, specifically as it relates to the construction of the transcontinental railroad system. Drawing on factual occurrences as well as myths, i aim to highlight this particular moment in history 1860s – 1870s where 20k Chinese migrants, many with dreams of finding gold, instead faced discrimination, exclusion, and toiled away, building the treacherous Western portion of the railroad. During the Reconstruction Era, Southern rails and expansion of the transcontinental railroads became a major undertaking, and formerly enslaved Africans were the primary source of labor, as the importance of the railroad rose. The Chinese Exclusion Act, Black Codes, and subsequent convict lease programs were ways U.S. corporate interests were able to discriminate in order to maximize profits, maintain dominance, while paying workers less or close to nothing if said workers were leased out to corporations while incarcerated. These occurrences have made a profound impact and have shaped the ways in which U.S. society is currently structured. Reflecting upon this moment offers an opportunity to explore Asian American history and identity, the intersections and parallels between Asian, Black and Native history and subjugation to preserve white dominance in the name of the American Dream.