John Henry The Steel Driving Man space
space space space space space space
The Story
The Music
What's New
The Project
  Hear Music | Read Lyrics | Analyze the Music

Analysis of John Henry Music

Guy Johnson, in his definitive 1928 study, calls John Henry "the Negro's greatest folk character." Which is why the facts of John Henry's literal life - as a black man trying to work his way through a "reconstructed" South - are only incidental to the countless versions of his story passed down over a century.

A hero becomes what you need. So in the ballad, John Henry's makeup depends on who is telling his tale. Is he a strong, black man driving the railroad west? A husband and father? A sweaty, sexual dynamo swinging the hammer? A symbol of futility because he died on the job or an inspiration because he beat the white man's steam-drill?

Considering that John Henry did clearly exist - and that we know the color of his skin - it's surprising how rarely his race is mentioned. A Tennessee version, found in Johnson's book, opens with a description of John Henry as a "coal black man." And Leon R. Harris, of Moline, Illinois, told Johnson that in his version, heard for the first time in 1894, John Henry and his hammer took on a white man and his steam drill.

Otherwise, it's likely that the black singers, whether prisoners or blues men, took his race as a given, seeing no need to mention it. He is their Paul Bunyon. In the case of Johnny Cash, race had nothing to do with the ballad. This was a union song, not a civil rights anthem. After all, John Henry, as ultimate working-class hero, has been embraced by disparate groups: black prisoners, white mountain musicians, college folk revivalists, elderly blues singers. Most Southern states have claimed him, as does Maine in Woody Guthrie's version, even though he was likely born in North Carolina or West Virginia.

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.

As far as authenticity, there's really no better moment than that recorded in 1947 AT THE MISSISSIPPI STATE PENITENTIARY at Parchman. In the melodies of the ballad, Alan Lomax writes, "the African slave, transformed into steel-driving John Henry, put the Bill of Rights into one phrase: A man ain't nothing but a man."

These guys take their hero seriously, to the point that a prisoner named Bama questions the opening stanza. How could, he asks, a baby who "you could hold in the palm of your hand" also be "drivin' steel like a man" at nine days old?

If only Bama had heard Arthur Bell's version, recorded eight years earlier at Arkansas' CUMMINS STATE FARM by Alan's father, John Lomax. Bell, over the steady thwack of the pick, sings that it is John Henry holding his own baby in his hand.

It's hard to tell just how many ballads, jazz riffs and blues songs made the trip North during the urban migration of the early '20th Century. "John Henry" traveled with BIG BILL BROONZY, who was born in Mississippi in 1893 and settled in Chicago by the late '20s. Broonzy's "John Henry" resonates because the bluessinger, backed by folk musician Pete Seeger, was nearing the end of his own life. Cancer took him in August of 1958.

WOODY GUTHRIE was the bridge between the hipster bohemia of the '50s and the more mainstream folk revival that spread across college campuses in the '60s. Not surprisingly, Guthrie remembers "John Henry" as a working-class hero. Guthrie isn't sure where he's from- "Some said he's born down in Texas," he sings, "some said he's born up in Maine. I just said he was a Louisiana man" - but there's no question where he ended up: Leader of a steel-driving chain gang.

In the '60s, as ballads and balladeers were rediscovered, nobody was rediscovered quite like MISSISSIPPI JOHN HURT. He had recorded a series of 78s in the late 1920s. When the Depression hit, Hurt returned to Avalon, Mississippi and worked as a sharecropper and sang on weekends. Until 1963, that is, when two young, white blues players from Washington sought out the man behind the finger picking. They found Hurt, 71 years old, ready to spend the last three years of his life playing folk festivals and coffeehouses. Hurt's version of the ballad, called "Spike Driver Blues," was recorded three daysafter the Christmas of 1928 in New York City. It opens with the narrator skipping out on his boss and handing over the hammer that killed John Henry because "it won't kill me."

Thanks to Hurt, and mountain musicians like CLARENCE ASHLEY, who was also part of the revival, a new generation of players spread the story of John Henry. Future Byrd ROGER McGUINN banged out a version on his banjo at his family home in 1959. JOHN FAHEY, a philosophy student at American University, recorded his wordless, rambling "John Henry Variations" in 1963 and again in 1967.

Mike Seeger, a folklorist and banjo player, discovered one other way the ballad spread across racial and geographic divides long before field recordings and folk revivals spread the word. He learned that LESLEY RIDDLE, a black man in Tennessee, was one of many musicians visited by A.P. Carter, patriarch of the Carter family. (Into which Johnny Cash married.) In 1965, Seeger tracked down and recorded Riddle, who was working in a barbershop in Rochester, New York.


Finally, there is JOHNNY CASH's version of the ballad, "The Legend of John Henry's Hammer." If nothing else, it is different. It opens with the Man in Black's disturbingly gastrointestinal grunts and sputters on for eight-and-a-half minutes, breaking for enough corny dialogue to make it the only version of "John Henry" fit for a game of musical chairs.

Cash's version, for all its shortcomings, makes an important point about the universality of the ballad. John Henry is no longer a black man struggling to make his way through the Reconstruction. He's a "giant of a steel driver tormented by a mine boss, challenged by the newly invented automatic stream drill, but he goes to his death gloriously defying both," according to the liner notes of 1962's "Blood, Sweat And Tears." The album cover features a buff Johnny Cash with a pick axe in his right hand.

In other words, John Henry is as much a hero to a pill-popping rockabilly singer in Nashville, Tennessee as a black man in the lock-up at the State Penitentiary.

This analysis was contributed by Geoff Edgers


Please let us know what you think about the Website.