When John Henry was a little baby,
Just a sittin' on his mammy's knee,
Said "the Big Bend Tunnel on that C&O Road
Gonna be the death of me, Lord God
Going to be the death of me."
I'm chuckling as I listen to the melancholy 19th-century folk tune "John Henry," which eulogizes the legendary "steel drivin' man" who defeats an automated steam drill in a contest but dies from the effort. The humor derives from the context in which I'm hearing such a tribute to old ways of doing things: I'm on the World Wide Web, at a site called The Folk Den (metalab.unc.edu/jimmy/folkden/index.html). It's a moment that limns the Web's vast potential not only for creating new forms of cultural expression and the communities they inspire but for preserving older ones as well.
All sorts of pleasant ironies fill the air alongside the music. The Folk Den is explicitly devoted to using cutting-edge technology to preserve "the tradition of the folk process, that is, the telling of stories and singing of songs, passed on from one generation to another by word of mouth." This particular version of "John Henry" is itself 40 years old and was recorded by Roger McGuinn. He's best known as the leader of the popular and influential '60s group The Byrds, a band that helped bring folk–and, later, country–to wider, younger audiences by wedding traditional forms to rock guitars. McGuinn has maintained the site since late 1995. Each month, he posts a new song, available for free as a RealAudio or .wav file (he also includes a short written intro, lyrics, and chord progressions).
From The Folk Den, you can link to the folk music page of the Open Directory Project (dmoz.org/Arts/Music/Styles/Folk/), a volunteer-run "self-regulating republic of the Web" that collects and filters links to useful resources on all sorts of topics ("Like any community," reads an information page, "you get what you give"). From there, you can go to sites such as the Digital Tradition Folk Song Database, a searchable collection of international tunes and La Page Trad, a France-based multilanguage site that provides information on festivals, bands, instruments, and organizations. Or you can go to a site for the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings' Anthology of American Folk Music. Edited by musicologist Harry Smith and originally released in 1952 as three double-L.P. volumes, those early recordings did more than preserve the past: They helped create the late '50s and early '60s folk revival that inspired musicians like McGuinn in the first place.
All over the Web, similar developments are occurring for all sorts of cultural activity, ranging from classical music to literature to art. The Web is delivering on the promise of what George Gilder once quaintly called "telecomputers." Writing in Life After Television (1990), before there was a World Wide Web, Gilder waxed hyperbolic about a future in which such machines would forever change "the balance of power between the distributors and creators of culture," letting individuals more fully set their own terms of cultural production, consumption, and exchange. Hierarchies, argued Gilder, would give way to "`heterarchies'–systems in which each individual rules his own domain."
For Gilder, telecomputers would not merely let people do new things ("You could spend a day interacting with Henry Kissinger, Kim Basinger, or Billy Graham," he wrote, perhaps unconsciously underscoring the "to each his own" potential of the future as he envisioned it). More important, by breaking down information "bottlenecks," telecomputers would provide a means of reinvigorating those institutions–"family, religion, education, and the arts"–that "preserve and transmit civilization to new generations."
Wrong in particular details, Gilder nonetheless hit the nail on the head as surely as John Henry hammered his steel drill. The Web is renewing an appreciation for the past even as it delivers us into the cultural future. In doing so, it turns "John Henry" into a happy song.
Well they carried him down to the graveyard
And they buried him in the sand
And every locomotive came a roarin' on by
They cried out, "There lies a steel drivin' man, Lord God
There lies a steel drivin' man."
Rest easy in your grave, John Henry. You may be long gone, but your future never looked better.