A towering, legendary American working-class folk heroes, John Henry represents not only the nineteenth-century struggle of the human spirit against the coming industrial era but also African-American resistance to white labor domination. It is not clear how the legend represents actual events surrounding the construction of the Big Bend tunnel of the Chesapeake & Ohio railroad in Summers County, West Virginia, in the 1870s. In the legend John Henry, an enormously strong black steel driver, pits himself in a contest against a steam drill intended to replace workers. Wielding only a hammer, John Henry wins by drilling holes along fourteen feet of granite, compared to the machine's nine feet, but the effort kills him.
The story exists in many different musical versions, often with different melodies. The text, which was first printed around the turn of the century, also exists in different versions, but all combine thematic aspects of the African-American work song with the narrative structure of British folk ballads. It is one of the most popular American folk songs and has been recorded hundreds of times, most often by blues singers. The first recording was by country music pioneer Fiddlin' John Carson in 1924. The first recording by black musicians was by the Francis and Sowell duo in 1927. Since then, versions have been released by Leadbelly, Paul Robeson, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, Fred McDowell, Memphis Slim, Odetta, Mississippi John Hurt, Big Bill Broonzy, and Harry Belafonte.
Chappell, Louis W. John Henry: A Folk-Lore Study. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1968.
Cohen, Norm. Long Steel Rail. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981.
andrew bienen (1996)
greg robinson (1996)
John Henry, a mighty laborer who outperformed a mechanical drill, is a character who first appeared in African American songs and ballads. He can be seen as a symbol of black strength and of African Americans' refusal to be crushed. In more general terms, John Henry also represents the human will and spirit, which a machine may defeat but can never duplicate.
The character of John Henry sometimes receives the kind of exaggerated treatment given to other larger-than-life figures such as Paul Bunyan. For example, John Henry is said to have weighed 44 pounds at birth and to have gone looking for work after his first meal.
His story is linked to the spread of railroads across the United States as the Industrial Age got into full swing in the years after the American Civil War (1861-1865). John Henry became a "steel-drivin' man," someone who swung a heavy hammer at a steel drill, driving it into rock to make railway tunnels through hills and mountains. The Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad drove the Big Bend Tunnel through West Virginia's Allegheny Mountains in the early 1870s, and legend places John Henry there.
All versions of the story agree that John Henry was the strongest and best hammerer of all, a man who wanted to be buried with his hammer in his hand. Then the railway company found a steam-powered drill that it claimed could work faster and better than even John Henry The "steel-drivin' man" entered a contest with the drill, working until he was exhausted and ready to fall. In the words of one song:
The man that invented the steam drill
Thought he was mighty fine.
John Henry drove his fifteen feet,
And the steam drill only made nine.
John Henry beat the steam drill in that contest, but the victory was a costly one. He "died with his hammer in his hand," say some accounts, while others claim that he died that night in his bed, worn and broken from the strain of the contest.
See also Bunyan, Paul.