The Legend |
Facts, Fiction and Themes |
John Henry in Alabama? |
The Man - Facts, Fiction and Themes
By Carlene Hempel
There are two John Henrys,
the actual man and the legend surrounding him. Defining the first is a
matter of assembling facts. He was born a slave, worked as a laborer for
the railroads after the Civil War, and died in his 30s, leaving behind
a young pretty wife and a baby.
Pinning down the second, the legend,
is not so easy. It's
as varied as the thousands of people - menial workers, scholars, professional
musicians - who have studied, sung and recorded it over the years.
The story of John Henry, told mostly
through ballads and work songs, traveled from coast to coast as the railroads
drove west during the 19th Century. And in time, it has become timeless,
spanning a century of generations with versions ranging from prisoners
recorded at Mississippi's Parchman Farm in the late 1940s to present-day
From what we know, John Henry was
born a slave in the 1840s or 1850s in North Carolina or Virginia. He grew
to stand 6 feet tall, 200 pounds - a giant in that day. He had an immense
appetite, and an even greater capacity for work. He carried a beautiful
baritone voice, and was a favorite banjo player to all who knew him.
One among a legion of blacks just
freed from the war, John Henry went to work rebuilding the Southern states
whose territory had been ravaged by the Civil War. The period became known
as the Reconstruction, a reunion of the nation under one government after
the Confederacy lost the war. The war conferred equal civil and political
rights on blacks, sending thousands upon thousands of men into the workforce,
mostly in deplorable conditions and for poor wages.
As far as anyone can determine,
John Henry was hired as a steel-driver for the C&O Railroad, a wealthy
company that was extending its line from the Chesapeake Bay to the Ohio
Valley. Steel drivers, also known as a hammer man, would spend their workdays
driving holes into rock by hitting thick steel drills or spikes. The hammer
man always had a partner, known as a shaker or turner, who would crouch
close to the hole and rotate the drill after each blow.
The C&O's new line was moving
along quickly, until Big Bend Mountain emerged to block its path. The mile-and-a-quarter-thick
mountain was too vast to build around. So the men were told they had drive
their drills through it, through its belly.
took 1,000 men three years to finish. The work was treacherous. Visibility
was negligible and the air inside the developing tunnel was thick with
noxious black smoke and dust. Hundreds of men would lose their lives to
Big Bend before it was over, their bodies piled into makeshift, sandy graves
just steps outside the mountain. John Henry was one of them. As the story
goes, John Henry was the strongest, fastest, most powerful man working
on the rails. He used a 14-pound hammer to drill, some historians believe,
10 to 20 feet in a 12-hour day - the best of any man on the rails.
One day, a salesman came to camp, boasting that his steam-powered machine could outdrill any man. A race was set: man against machine. John Henry won, the legend says, driving 14 feet to the drill's nine. He died shortly after, some say from exhaustion, some say from a stroke.
So why would one man - one among a hundred years of other men and other stories - emerge as such a central figure in folklore and song? For this, we can only speculate.
Like Paul Bunyan, John Henry's life was about power - the individual, raw strength that no system could take from a man - and about weakness - the societal position in which he was thrust. To the thousands of railroad hands, he was an inspiration and an example, a man just like they who worked in a deplorable, unforgiving atmosphere but managed to make his mark.
But the song also reflects many faces, many lives. Some consider it a protest anthem, an attempt by the laborers to denounce - without facing punishment or dismissal by their superiors - the wretched conditions under which John Henry worked.
This old hammer killed John Henry
But it won't kill me, it won't kill me.
Another refrain perhaps allowed the men to imagine they could walk away from the tunnel. And of course they could have. The whites driving them were not their owners. But still, for many blacks, the railroad was an extension of the plantation. Whites were barking the orders; an army of blacks was doing the work. And, for the most part, they had no other option.
Take this hammer, and carry it to the captain,
Tell him I'm gone, tell him I'm gone.
Still another reading interprets John Henry's story as one rooted in sex and power. And indeed, some of the ballads depict John Henry as a man leashed to his sexual appetites, roaming the countryside to drive his steel, so to speak. In his 1933 book "John Henry A Folk-Lore Study," historian Louis W. Chappell maintains that the ballad's sexual symbolism is abundantly and unmistakably clear.
Consider a verse common among several versions:
When John Henry was a little boy,
He was sitting on his papa's knee;
He was looking down on a piece of steel
Says, 'A steel-driving man I will be. Lord, Lord
A steel-driving man I will be.'
He's looking at a piece of steel between his legs as he sits on his father's lap. The phallic nature of the description is obvious, Chappell points out. And a scene about John Henry's wife:
John Henry had a little woman,
Her name was Polly Ann,
When John Henry lay sick down on his bed,
Polly drove steel like a man
Polly drove steel like a man.
It is also important to put the songs in context. The drivers worked deep inside a mountain. The air was thick and hot, and the space, close. Many of the men walked around partially clothed, if not naked, according to testimony collected by historians. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to argue that the laborers sang sexually charged songs about a man who was a sexual hero as well as a work hero, to accompany them through the grueling days.
Whatever John Henry meant or has come to mean, his legend has persevered. Perhaps that's because it reminds us of a time in history - the war and Reconstruction - that we know we ought not to forget. Or, perhaps it's that John Henry represents to us a man who stayed true, despite living in a time and place where, just like in Big Bend, the roads were blocked and the choices, limited.
In other words, like all good heroes, his story still applies.
Was John Henry from Alabama?
Last updated: December, 1998.