The Ballad of John Henry

When John Henry was a little baby boy, 
        sitting on the his papa's knee
Well he picked up a hammer and little piece of steel
Said Hammer's gonna be the death of me, lord, lord
Hammer's gonna be the death of me

This is a post about the destruction and recreation of the world.

I’ve been building a diddly bow. It’s a one-stringed instrument originally invented by african slaves in America’s old south, and the cool thing about it is that you can put it together out of bits of stuff you find around the place; a big plank of wood, nails, bottles, smaller chunks of wood. And some wire, ideally music wire of some kind, really ideally a guitar string.

Now I want to make some more of them, for which everything is easy except the string. I’m using a guitar G-string; I thought today I’d head off to a music shop and grab some more guitar strings, and maybe one for a bass guitar?

So anyway, I went into the city (Adelaide, South Australia), and schlepped into Allens Music, in Gawler Place, right in the CBD. Anything from Allens is going to cost an arm and a leg, but hey, they’ll have some strings, and how much can they be? Note that I have never bought guitar strings, but they seem to be about $10 for a set online, give or take, so how bad can it be?

Actually I hardly ever buy any musical gear from a shop. I buy everything online. I would have bought the strings online, but I needed to get this project moving.

The captain said to John Henry
I'm gonna bring that steam drill around
I'm gonna bring that steam drill out on the job
I'm gonna whup that steel on down

When I arrived, the place was a shambles. Down mouthed, black shirted sales people, scrubbing stuff off the windows, packing stuff up. It’s a three story shop (ground floor guitars, basement synths and mics, upstairs pianos, sheet music, classical instruments). Today, upstairs and basement gone, shut down, and ground floor was like a garage sale.

“No guitar stuff left” says the guy at the till. I asked them a bit about it. No, they’re not moving. Apparently Allans Billy Hyde has completely collapsed, is being entirely shut down.

From this link:

The receivers of collapsed music chain Allans Billy Hyde have announced all the company’s stores will close and more than 500 jobs will be lost as a result.

Brendan Richards of Ferrier Hodgson said in a statement Australian Music Group Holdings will be shut down.

“The loss of jobs is disappointing, but we exhausted all avenues and there is no other way forward for this business,” he said.

“These people have served music lovers and been a key part of the Australian music industry for generations. It is a sad day for live music in this country.”

The 513 staff will be made redundant over the next few weeks. All the 27 stores will be closed.

The company collapsed earlier this year, after an injection of capital failed to save the business and investors called in receivers. It had been experiencing trouble for years, with the two groups, Allans and Billy Hyde, creating a new chain in 2010.

So I guess everyone there was on the last day of their job.

John Henry told his captain
Lord a man ain't nothing but a man
But before I'd let your steam drill beat me down
I'd die with a hammer in my hand

John Henry is a great song that I’ve just discovered recently. The story is a classic American style; a heroic big man, greater than ordinary mortals. Wikipedia says:

John Henry is an American folk hero and tall tale. Henry worked as a “steel-driver”—a man tasked with hammering and chiseling rock in the construction of tunnels for railroad tracks. In the legend, John Henry’s prowess as a steel-driver was measured in a race against a steam powered hammer, which he won only to die in victory with his hammer in his hand.

He’s got a touch of Paul Bunyan to him, but he’s a tragic figure. Mightier than the steam drill, he succumbs to his exertions, while as we know the steam drill digs on.

John Henry asid to his shaker
Shaker why don't you sing
Because I'm swinging thirty pounds from my hips on down
Just listen to that cold steel ring

There’s an obscure name for the computer that is sometimes used by computer scientists: the General Purpose Machine. It’s called that because this machine, unlike all others before it, can be programmed to do anything that any special purpose machine you might conceive of could do. So it solves an entire class of problems in one shot (as long as we hand-wave around the programming). And that entire class of problems turns out to be anything we can automate. And that in turn might turn out to be Everything.

Oddly enough the world hasn’t actually figured this out, and you can forgive it for that. Progress is slow (in day to day terms) and uneven, because, after all, we can’t hand-wave around the programming, and Moore’s Law is fast, but it’s doesn’t seem that fast when you’re slogging through your day-to-day life. Some days you mightn’t even think about computers at all!

Now the captain said to John Henry
I believe that mountain's caving in
John Henry said right back to the captain
Ain't nothing but my hammer sucking wind

And we also seem to have a bias toward believing that our institutions are solid. They always have been before, right?

And then, the newspapers stumble. Encyclopedias, well is that still a business?

Let’s not even mention the music publishing industry! Oh, ok, let’s.

There are a lot of theories about what’s brought the music publishing industry undone. Piracy! Apparently limewire alone owes the music industry 75 Trillion Dollars. That surely is a lot of money.

Or how about iTunes, killing the music industry with kindness? Jon Bon Jovi thinks Apple killed music by making it less like when everything totally sucked. But some people who aren’t total idiots have made a better argument that the revenue from digital is just nothing like that from physical media:

I have another idea about this. My own experience is that suddenly, especially since about 2005 when Youtube started (yep, only 7 years ago), I have access to more or less the entire back catalogue of recorded music history. For free. So now instead of listening to the radio, and/or buying the “latest” stuff, I’m listening to this cornucopia of music from the last hundred years. And I see everyone I know doing the same thing. So I hear of a band or a musician that I like, then follow back through their influences, to those people’s influences, and etc until I’m listening to blues from the thirties, or early vocalese, or watching Mahalia Jackson on the Nat King Cole show.

And it’s clear from this vantage that the music industry’s modus operandus has always been to promote the new before the good. Keep taking the old stuff off the shelves, replace it with the new stuff. Keep hammering you with this month’s prodigy, while you whip last month’s out the back door.

Only we don’t have to put up with that any more.

Without this disruption I’d never have heard of John Henry.

Now the man that invented the steam drill
He thought he was mighty fine
But John Henry drove fifteen feet
The steam drill only made nine

What I do is, I make steam drills.

In the tech industry, we’re always disrupting someone. Someone’s job is going, someone’s industry is being replaced/canibalised. It’s a ruthless, heartless kind of thing.

We don’t notice because we disrupt ourselves most of all. My own career path is nothing like anyone’s I’ve seen from other industries. I think of myself as a professional forgetter. I have to pick up new technologies at a moment’s notice, pick up new languages, pick up entirely new paradigms of computing (eg: Platform as a Service).

And then drop them. These skills used to last 5 to 10 years. Now they last, what, 3? 2? The normal technical skill useful lifespan is shortening, towards the minimum timespan required for mastery.

It’s an industry littered with those who couldn’t keep up. Hordes of one-language techies, one trick ponies, stuck in legacy land or eventually on the scrap heap. Legions of used-to-be-programmer managers, with slowly aging skills, also staring irrelevance and unemployability direct in its dead eye. Mountains of legacy code, built for a time long ago (eg: 2007).

Eventually of course we’ll all put ourselves out of work for good. But when we do that, everyone else will come with us. Intelligence will be something you download on your whatever-phones-are-by-then.

John Henry hammered in the mountains
His hammer was striking fire
But he worked so hard, it broke his poor heart
And he laid down his hammer and he died

Here’s the smartcompany article about Allans Billy Hyde from waaaay back in August:

Another retailer has bitten the dust. Australian Music Group Holdings, trading as the iconic Allans Billy Hyde brand, has been placed in receivership.

Rumours of the company’s demise were floating around in March, but joint managing director Tim Mason told SmartCompany at that time the company had received an injection of capital, debt was reduced, and the business was trading fine albeit in rough conditions.

The fact a business of this size and calibre – it owns 25% of the market – can be struck by the retail downturn demonstrates the strength of pessimistic consumer confidence but also the ramifications of offshore retail.

Ferrier Hodgson confirmed yesterday the company had been placed in receivership – and those same harsh retail conditions are to blame.

“Things are pretty rough in retail right now,” Ferrier Hodgson partner James Stewart told SmartCompany.

“The business had been recapitalised as far back as March, and the business was not travelling at levels the people in charge would have liked it to travel at. The stakeholders decided to call it a day.”

“Our intention is to seek a buyer for the business as soon as we possibly can.”

The odd thing is, I never noticed until now, and that only by accident. Or perhaps it’s the opposite of odd?

Now John Henry had a little woman
Her name was polly Anne
John Henry took sick and had to go to bed
Polly Anne drove steel like a man

I took my darling wife back to Allans to pick over the almost bare carcass. She said to me guiltily that she feels a little responsible. She buys a lot of sheet music for singing students and choirs, but it’s all from SheetMusicPlus. Or else free from the choral public domain library and similar. In the end, it’s cheaper and more convenient.

Of course this idea of buying sheet music makes no sense either. SheetMusicPlus fills a niche, but it wont last, like everything else. Something could happen sooner, but eventually pieces of paper will be replaced in choirs and orchestras by the stupidly cheap eink based A4 sized descendants of today’s tablets. They might stick around selling DRM infested skeuomorphic bundles of faux paper to tablet owners, but how long can such an artificial situation really continue? Depressingly, longer than is warranted, but it’s by no means permanent.


We’ve seen the slide of the music industry, encyclopedias, newspapers.

Now we’re watching cars, movies, retail, univerities, all stumbling.

Look forward to this for formal schooling, world finance, and governments.

John Henry had a little baby
You could hold him in the palm of your hand
And the last words I heard that poor boy say 
My daddy was a steel driving man

So the cool thing was, that from the husk that once was Allans Music, I bought some strings for an orchestral bass. Apparently they normally cost $270 at Allans, for a set of 4!, but you can get them from Amazon for $115. Probably there’s a better price if you shop around a bit.

It seems like sacrilege to use these strings on a didley, but they’ll make a great sound, and Allans sold them to me for $30. Because they’ve gone broke. Because the world is quietly getting on with the upheaval of everything, even stuff you like, even stuff you think the world is entirely built on.

So every Monday morning
When the blue birds begin to sing
You can hear John Henry a mile or more
You can hear John Henry's hammer ring
The Ballad of John Henry

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