John Henry

Jun 9th, 2011 | By | Category: Activism, Social Sciences
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John HenryMid-Late 19th Century  John Henry, about whom little is known, is a subject of legend and song, and may well have been a real person living in the late 19th century in West Virginia or Alabama. The legend is the best-known black “tall tale,” honoring the achievements of an individual under difficult circumstances. In the case of John Henry, a “steel driving man,” he is memorialized for defeating a steam-powered machine in a test of strength and fortitude. As such, he continues to serve a vital mythic purpose in dramatizing the power of African Americans, and workers of all races.

The Facts

There is some evidence that John Henry was a historical man, probably an emancipated slave born in either North Carolina or Virginia in the decade of the 1840s or 1850s. He apparently grew to great size, perhaps over six feet tall and weighing over 200 pounds, matched by big appetites for food and hard work. Like many recently freed African Americans, he went to work for the railroads during the post-Civil War Reconstruction period. At the time, many rail lines were pushing west through the Appalachian Mountains, part of the drive to expand the still-young nation to the western frontier.

The challenge of penetrating those mountains was formidable. Tunnels had to be blasted through the rock using manual labor. The technique was to drive a deep hole into the rock with a steel shaft called a drill, in which explosives would be placed and ignited to blast incrementally into the mountain. The drill was pounded in by a “steel driver” wielding a sledgehammer of considerable weight. Each driver had an assistant, called a “turner,” who held the drill and rotated it between hammer blows. Both were hazardous, sweaty, exhausting jobs, but it was some of the only work available at that time. Newly designed mechanical drivers, powered by steam engines, were beginning to be tested and used to improve efficiency and reduce costs.

The historical John Henry is widely believed to have worked as a steel-driver for the Chesapeake & Ohio, or C&O Railway. Recent academic research suggests that the actual location may have been in Alabama in the year 1887. In any event, the C&O was at that time extending its line west into the Ohio Valley. Progress was halted at one point by Big Bend Mountain in Talcott, West Virginia, a one-and-a-half mile obstruction that could not be circumvented. Beginning in 1870, a tunnel was blasted through the mountain over a three-year period. A roadside sign near the tunnel entrance reads as follows: “Tradition makes this the scene of the steel drivers’ ballad, ‘John Henry’.” Hundreds of African American and white laborers died blasting this tunnel, and others like it, due to unsafe conditions and brutal 12-hour days. In such difficult and close quarters, songs and stories provided both entertainment and inspiration for the men.

The Legend

The legend itself bears the hallmarks of mythic archetypal power. Usually told in the form of a ballad, it is one of the best-known and most recorded American songs. According to its narrative, the white railroad owners and their field bosses, or “Captains,” allowed the salesman for a steam engine driver to bring his machine to Big Bend Tunnel. John Henry, who in some versions of the tall tale was born eight feet tall and went to work at three weeks of age, realized this was an assault on his and his coworkers’ effectiveness and their livelihood. He, therefore, challenged the salesman to a contest between him and the machine. At the end of the day-long competition, John Henry had driven more steel with his 14-pound hammer than the mechanical contraption, but he died a martyr on the spot, exhausted by his Herculean efforts or perhaps from heartbreak on realizing what inevitably lay in store.

Beyond its powerful core of racial pride, the legend has migrated to more universal themes of workers and owners, underdogs and oppressors, the individual and society, and according to one commentator, even the Bill of Rights with its famous song lyric, “A man ain’t nothin’ but a man.” This may account for its ongoing vitality, and the countless versions of song and story that have proliferated over more than a century. Other American tall tales, including Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, and Johnny Appleseed, tell similar stories of individuals displaying superhuman power, and were part of America’s evolving self-narrative: conquering a hostile wilderness through individual drive, courage, and determination. As the lyrics to an early version of the ballad put it:

John Henry said to his captain:
“A man ain’t nothin’ but a man,
And before I’ll let your steam drill beat me down,
I’ll die with my hammer in my hand.”

The John Henry ballads probably originated as work songs for steel-drivers and other rail workers in the 1870s, and became more generalized as chain gang, worker, and prison songs. In later incarnations, they became folk, blues, or protest vehicles for the likes of Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Harry Belafonte, and Dave Van Ronk. If the legend did indeed have a historical basis, it surely became exaggerated with the passage of time and reinterpretation, but its power and relevance remain strong to this day.

In addition to the musical version, the legendary John Henry has been depicted in sculpture, illustrations, books, and short films, and even served as the inspiration for a stage play, a ballet, and a postage stamp. These help ensure that his message will live, or as one early writer put it, John Henry “…didn’t really die… just stopped livin’ in his Mammy’s shack, and started livin’ in the hearts of men, forever and a day.”


2 Comments to “John Henry”

  1. Fernando says:

    That story was amazing

  2. Carolyn H says:

    Historian Scott Nelson researched the story of John Henry in his book, Steel Drivin’ Man
    He discusses his work at the Virginia Historical Society.

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