John Henry: Hero of American Folklore

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One of the most colorful characters in American folklore is the legendary John Henry.  Whether he was a true historical figure or a fictitious hero carved into the minds of common Americans by oral tradition, his story has given inspiration to generations.  Geoff Edgers said in his Analysis of John Henry Music, “John Henry, as ultimate working-class hero, has been embraced by disparate groups:  black prisoners, white mountain musicians, college folk revivalists, elderly blues singers…The connector is this valiant battle, man against machine, man against boss, man against the power structure that keeps his people (African-Americans? Laborers?) in chains. He’s a hero to Woody Guthrie, a warning to Mississippi John Hurt, an inspiration to the chain gang. From verse-to-verse, generation-to-generation, the story
changes to suit the singer. The name and steel-driving solitude stay the same.”1

John Henry tracksSo who was John Henry really?  He was described as a towering 6 foot tall, 200 pound strong black man, born in the mid 1800’s probably in North Carolina or Virginia.  He was said to be a freed slave that worked as a steel driver.  Steel drivers used their hammers to drive spikes or drills into mountains to create passes for the railroads.  It was terribly hard work and many died from exhaustion or silicosis due to the constant exposure to dust.  It is believed that John Henry worked for the C&O railroad during the Reconstruction Period, and at one point they ran up upon Big Bend Mountain, a rock over a mile wide that had to be conquered by drilling through its heart.2  It was a monumental task.  But as the story goes, John Henry stood out as the man that competed with the newly invented steam hammer, a machine that could do the work of these valuable men—a machine that would eventually drive them out of their needed employment.

Be aware that there are conflicting accounts as to where this competition took place.  There are no records of a steam hammer being used at Big Bend in West Virginia, so some say it took place 40 miles away at Lewis Tunnel in Virginia.  Another possible location is Leeds, Alabama at the Coosa Mountain Tunnel or the Oak Mountain Tunnel of the Columbus & Western Railway.  Each year in September the Leeds Folk Festival is held to commemorate John Henry and the contest that supposedly took place in that area.3

While facts are debatable, the legend is unstoppable.  Told not only as a folk tale but also in song, the account has stretched its vines in so many directions that it is hard to tackle the subject.  The song originated in the late 1800’s, and traditionally the songs were either ballads or hammer songs (work songs used by laborers or prisoners to make their work more efficient and break the monotony).4  But there are numerous versions of John Henry songs including folk ballads, chain gang, construction crew, and bluegrass.    Each version adds new pieces to the puzzle, adds fresh nuances to the story, while also bringing contradictions.  I am posting below a version that Pete Seeger sang as it includes many of the elements common to most versions, while not dragging on too long:

John Henry was about three days old,
Sittin’ on his papa’s knee.
He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel;
said, “Hammer’s gonna be the death of me, Lord, Lord.
Hammer’s gonna be the death of me.”

The captain said to John HenryJohn Henry Steam Drill resized
“Gonna bring that steam drill ’round.
Gonna bring that steam drill out on the job.
Gonna whop that steel on down, down, down.
Whop that steel on down.”

John Henry told his captain,
“A man ain’t nothin’ but a man,
But before I let your steam drill beat me down,
I’d die with a hammer in my hand.  Lord, Lord.
I’d dies with a hammer in my hand.”

John Henry said to his shaker,
“Shaker, why don’t you sing?
I’m throwin’ thirty pounds from my hips on down.
Just listen to that cold steel ring.  Lord, Lord.
Listen to that cold steel ring.”

The man that invented the stream drill
Thought he was mighty fine,
But John Henry made fifteen feet;
The steam drill only made nine.  Lord, Lord.
The steam drill only made nine.

John Henry hammered in the mountainjohn-henry-3 dead resized
His hammer was striking fire.
But he worked so hard, he broke his poor heart.
He laid down his hammer and he died.  Lord, Lord.
He laid down his hammer and he died.

John Henry had a little woman.
Her name was Polly Ann.
John Henry took sick and went to his bed.
Polly Ann drove steel like a man.  Lord, Lord.
Polly Ann drove steel like a man.

John Henry had a little baby.
You could hold him in the palm of your hand.
The last words I heard that poor boy say,
“My daddy was steel-driving man.  Lord, Lord.
My daddy was a steel-driving.”

Well, every Monday morning
When the bluebirds begin to sing.
You can hear John Henry a mile or more.
You can hear John Henry’s hammer ring.  Lord, Lord.
You can hear John Henry’s hammer ring.

In Bruce Springsteen’s album “We Shall Overcome:  The Seeger Sessions,” he covers the song in the style of Pete Seeger.  Here is a video from the historic album:

The make-up of the story is four-fold:  (1)a prophecy as a child that John Henry would die with his hammer in his hand; (2)the events leading up to the contest; (3)the contest and the death of John Henry; (4)his wife’s reaction to his death.5

There is a core set of characters that show up in the various versions of John Henry songs.  The most important besides John Henry appears to be the Captain, his boss.  He and the Captain wager on whether or not John Henry can beat the steam drill by pounding a larger hole into the mountain.  John Henry makes a prediction to the Captain that is common throughout the numerous narratives:

John Henry said to his captain,
“A man, he ain’t nothing but a man,
Before I’d let that steam drill beat me down,
Oh, I’d die with the hammer in my hand.”

The Captain is asked by John Henry to purchase him a hammer varying in size from 9-12 pounds.  In a construction crew version dated 1909, he and John Henry appear to be friends, and the Captain is actually given a name:

John Henry’s cap’n Tommy,–
V’ginny gave him birth;
Loved John Henry like his only son,
And Cap’ Tommy was the whitest man on earth,–
Lawd, — Lawd, —
Cap’ Tommy was th’ whitest man on earth.

In this version there is a definite relationship between the two.  John Henry declares he can beat the steam drill, but tells Tommy he wants to be his friend and asks him to refrain from being angry if he, in fact, does win the bet.  Tommy teases him in the narrative, claiming that John Henry will only beat his drill when the mountains turn to gold.  Tommy offers to pay John Henry fifty dollars if he can beat the steam drill, which he does, but you can sense his regret when John Henry drops dead:

Cap’ Tommy came a-runnin’
To John Henry’s side;
Says, “Lawd, Lawd,–O Lawdy, Lawdy, Lawd,–
He’s beat it to th’ bottom but he’s died,–
Lawd, — Lawd, —
He’s beat it to th’ bottom but he’s died.”

Another colorful character that shows up in all the John Henry songs is his wife.  The names of John Henry’s wife include  Polly Ann (the most common), Julie Ann (folk version) and Lucy (in the construction crew version collected in Birmingham, AL, John Henry names his hammer Lucy after his wife).  Often his wife is described as wearing either red or blue.  In some versions she is a faithful, devoted wife, who picks up a hammer and drives steel in his place once he dies.  But in a couple of versions she is portrayed as a woman who demands money to buy gloves, shoes, and clothes.  In one case, she’s appears to be cheating:

John Henry had a little woman,
Just as pretty as she could be;
They’s just one objection I’s got to her:
She want every man she see.

John Henry asked his little woman,
“Where you get those clothes and shoes so fine?”
“Oh, I got the clothes from a railroad man
And the shoes from a man in the mines.”

John Henry is said to have a son in some of the lyrics who fits in the palm of his hand.  Referred to as Johnny, the child receives a prediction from his father that one day he, too, will be a steel-driving man.  And one more character common to many of the accounts is a shaker, who was the person that would hold the spike or drill for the hammerer.

Of all the hammer songs (others include “Take This Hammer,” and “Nine Pound Hammer,” to name a couple), “John Henry” is the most famous and the most universally inspirational.  From the liner notes for Bruce Springsteen’s album We Shall Overcome:  The Seeger Sessions, Dave Marsh says:

“John Henry” was the best of the batch because it carried the most complex set of messages.  It is a protest song, sometimes against human expendability, sometimes against over work (in one version, “This old hammer killed John Henry/But it won’t kill me, it won’t kill me”).  It’s also a song about the love of work (one version says “John Henry kissed his hammer/Kissed his hammer with a groan.”)  It’s the archetypal tale of man versus machine, and at another level, a tale of the unity of men and their tools.  Since John Henry is understood to be a black man—menial occupations on the railroad were racially distributed—it is a story about the strength and courage of the African-American people.  It is a story about the callousness of the bosses and of the whole power structure that works men to death without blinking.  In the version Pete and Bruce sing, it is a story about marital fidelity and female strength, too.6                        

Versions of John Henry have been covered by a vast array of singers including Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, Merele Travis, Gillian Welch, Jerry Lee Lewis, Mississippi John Hurt, Woody Guthrie, Van Morrison, Harry Belafonte, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Bruce Springsteen, Joe Bonamassa, and countless others.7  It is a universal American folk anthem and part of our history.  John Henry, whether real or fictitious, became a symbol of hope, freedom, culture, and class.  His legend will live on in folk tradition.

Footnotes

1. Geoff Edgers, “Analysis of John Henry Music,” John Henry the Steel Driving Man.  http://www.ibiblio.org/john_henry/musicanalysis.html
2. Carlene Hempel, “The Man – Facts, Fiction and Themes,” John Henry the Steel Driving Man, Dec. 1998.
    http://www.ibiblio.org/john_henry/analysis.html
3. “John Henry (Folklore),” Wikipedia.   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Henry_(folklore)
4. “John Henry (Folklore),” Wikipedia.   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Henry_(folklore)
5. “John Henry (Folklore),” Wikipedia.   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Henry_(folklore)
6. Dave Marsh, Liner Notes from Bruce Springsteen’s CD, “We Shall Overcome:  The Seeger Sessions.”
    http://www.springsteenlyrics.com/lyrics/j/johnhenry.php
7. “John Henry (Folklore),” Wikipedia.   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Henry_(folklore)

 

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