John Henry is an African American folk hero. He is said to have worked as a "steel-driving man"--a man tasked with hammering a steel drill into rock to make holes for explosives to blast the rock in constructing a railroad tunnel. According to legend, John Henry's prowess as a steel-driver was measured in a race against a steam-powered rock drilling machine, a race that he won only to die in victory with hammer in hand as his heart gave out from stress. The story of John Henry is told in a classic folk song, which exists in many versions, and has been the subject of numerous stories, plays, books, and novels. Various locations, including Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia, Lewis Tunnel in Virginia, and Coosa Mountain Tunnel in Alabama, have been suggested as the site of the contest.
Guy B. Johnson, a Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina, investigated the legend of John Henry in the late 1920s. He concluded that John Henry was a real person who worked on and died at the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway's (C&O Railway) Big Bend Tunnel. The tunnel was built near Talcott, West Virginia, from 1870 to 1872 (according to Johnson's dating), and named for the big bend in the Greenbrier River nearby.
Some versions of the song refer to the location of John Henry's death as "The Big Bend Tunnel on the C. & O." Johnson visited the area around 1929 and found several men who said that they were boys of 12 or 14 when the tunnel was begun and that they could remember seeing John Henry, a large, powerful man. Although most of these men had heard of but not seen the famous contest between John Henry and the steam drill, Johnson ultimately was able to find a man who said he had seen it.
This man, known as Neal Miller, told me in plain words how he had come to the tunnel with his father at 17, how he carried water and drills for the steel drivers, how he saw John Henry every day, and, finally, all about the contest between John Henry and the steam drill.
"When the agent for the steam drill company brought the drill here," said Mr. Miller, "John Henry wanted to drive against it. He took a lot of pride in his work and he hated to see a machine take the work of men like him.
"Well, they decided to hold a test to get an idea of how practical the steam drill was. The test went on all day and part of the next day.
"John Henry won. He wouldn't rest enough, and he overdid. He took sick and died soon after that."
Mr. Miller described the steam drill in detail. I made a sketch of it and later when I looked up pictures of the early steam drills, I found his description correct. I asked people about Mr. Miller's reputation, and they all said, "If Neal Miller said anything happened, it happened."
In the 2006 book Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend, Scott Reynolds Nelson, an associate professor of history at the College of William & Mary, contends that the John Henry of the ballad was based on a different real person, the 20-year-old New Jersey-born African-American freeman, John William Henry. Nelson speculates that Henry, like many African Americans might have come to Virginia to work on the clean-up of the battlefields after the Civil War. Arrested and tried for burglary, he was among the many convicts released by the warden to work as leased labor on the C&O Railway.:39
According to Nelson, conditions at the Virginia prison were so terrible that the warden, an idealistic Quaker from Maine, believed the prisoners, many of whom had been arrested on trivial charges, would be better clothed and fed if they were released as laborers to private contractors. (He subsequently changed his mind about this and became an opponent of the convict labor system.) Nelson asserts that a steam drill race at the Big Bend Tunnel would have been impossible because railroad records do not indicate a steam drill being used there.
Instead, Nelson argues that the contest must have taken place 40 miles away at the Lewis Tunnel, between Talcott and Millboro, Virginia, where records indicate that prisoners did indeed work beside steam drills night and day. Nelson also argues that the verses of the ballad about John Henry being buried near "the white house", "in sand", somewhere that locomotives roar, mean that Henry's body was buried in the cemetery behind the main building of the Virginia State Penitentiary, which photos from that time indicate was painted white, and where numerous unmarked graves have been found.
Prison records for John William Henry stopped in 1873, suggesting that he was kept on the record books until it was clear that he was not coming back and had died. The evidence assembled by Nelson, though suggestive, is circumstantial; Nelson stresses that John Henry would have been representative of the many hundreds of convict laborers who were killed in unknown circumstances tunneling through the mountains or who died shortly afterwards of silicosis from dust created by the drills and blasting.
There is another tradition that John Henry's famous race took place not in West Virginia, but rather near Leeds, Alabama. Professor Johnson in the late 1920s received letters saying that John Henry worked on the A.G.S. Railway's Cruzee or Curzey Mountain Tunnel in 1882, and a third letter saying it was at Oak Mountain in 1887, but he discounted these reports after the A.G.S. told him that the railway had no such tunnel. Retired chemistry professor and folklorist John Garst, of the University of Georgia, has argued that the contest happened at the Coosa Mountain Tunnel or the Oak Mountain Tunnel of the Columbus and Western Railway (now part of Norfolk Southern Railway) near Leeds on September 20, 1887.
Based on documentation that corresponds with the account of C. C. Spencer, who claimed in the 1920s to have witnessed the contest, Garst speculates that John Henry may have been a man named Henry who was born a slave to P.A.L. Dabney, the father of the chief engineer of that railroad, in 1850. Since 2007, the city of Leeds has honored John Henry's legend during an annual September festival, held on the third weekend in September, called the Leeds Downtown Folk Festival & John Henry Celebration.
John Henry is a symbol of physical strength and endurance, of exploited labor, of the dignity of a human being against the degradations of the machine age, and of racial pride and solidarity. During World War II his image was used in U.S. government propaganda as a symbol of social tolerance and diversity.
The story of John Henry is traditionally told through two types of songs: ballads, commonly called "The Ballad of John Henry", and "hammer songs" (a type of work song), each with wide-ranging and varying lyrics. Some songs, and some early folk historian research, conflate the songs about John Henry with those of John Hardy, a West Virginian outlaw. Ballads about John Henry's life typically contain four major components: a premonition by John Henry as a child that steel-driving would lead to his death, the lead-up to and the results of the legendary race against the steam hammer, Henry's death and burial, and the reaction of his wife.
The well-known narrative ballad of "John Henry" is usually sung in an upbeat tempo. Hammer songs associated with the "John Henry" ballad, however, are not. Sung more slowly and deliberately, often with a pulsating beat suggestive of swinging the hammer, these songs usually contain the lines "This old hammer killed John Henry / but it won't kill me." Nelson explains that:
... workers managed their labor by setting a "stint," or pace, for it. Men who violated the stint were shunned ... Here was a song that told you what happened to men who worked too fast: they died ugly deaths; their entrails fell on the ground. You sang the song slowly, you worked slowly, you guarded your life, or you died.:32
There is some controversy among scholars over which came first, the ballad or the hammer songs. Some scholars have suggested that the "John Henry" ballad grew out of the hammer songs, while others believe that the two were always entirely separate.
Songs featuring the story of John Henry have been recorded by many blues, folk, and rock musicians of different ethnic backgrounds. Many notable musicians have recorded John Henry ballads, including
The story also inspired the Aaron Copland's orchestral composition "John Henry" (1940, revised 1952), the 1994 chamber music piece Come Down Heavy by Evan Chambers and the 2009 chamber music piece Steel Hammer by the composer Julia Wolfe.
Henry is the subject of the 1931 Roark Bradford novel John Henry, illustrated by noted woodcut artist J. J. Lankes. The novel was adapted into a stage musical in 1940, starring Paul Robeson in the title role. According to Steven Carl Tracy, Bradford's works were influential in broadly popularizing the John Henry legend beyond railroad and mining communities and outside of African American oral histories. In a 1933 article published in The Journal of Negro Education, Bradford's John Henry was criticized for "making over a folk-hero into a clown." A 1948 obituary for Bradford described John Henry as "a better piece of native folklore than Paul Bunyan."
Ezra Jack Keats's John Henry: An American Legend, published in 1965, is a notable picture book chronicling the history of John Henry and portraying him as the "personification of the medieval Everyman who struggles against insurmountable odds and wins."
Colson Whitehead's 2001 novel John Henry Days uses the John Henry myth as story background. Whitehead fictionalized the John Henry Days festival in Talcott, West Virginia and the release of the John Henry postage stamp in 1996.
Disney has utilized the legend in several shorts, including in 1995, John Henry appeared in the Disney film Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill portrayed by Roger Aaron Brown. He also appeared in a Walt Disney Feature Animation produced animated short version of John Henry in 1999, directed by Mark Henn. Plans for theatrical releases in 2000 and 2001 fell through (other than a limited Academy Award qualifying run in Los Angeles), and the short instead first appeared - slightly edited to remove its opening and closing titles - as the only new entry in the 2002 VHS compilation release Disney's American Legends. The short appeared in its original format as an interstitial on the Disney Channel, and later as part of the 2015 home video compilation Walt Disney Animation Studios Short Films Collection.
John Henry was featured as a fictional character in the 2014 video game Wasteland 2. The story is referenced by various NPCs throughout the game and is also available in full as a series of in game books which tell the story of the competition between John Henry and a contingent of robotic workers.
He also appeared as a playable character in the 3DS game Code Name: S.T.E.A.M..
"John Henry in Leeds", Leeds Folk Festival
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