Visit the official Web site
Purchase the book on Amazon.com
The Charles White Archive at the University of Delaware Museum
Charles White - John Henry Steel Driving Man
Learn to play John Henry songs...
John Henry Sheet Music
Who Was John Henry? Railroad Construction, Southern
Folklore, and the Birth of Roch and Roll
Check out this article:
Scott Nelson. "Who Was John Henry? Railroad Construction, Southern
Folklore, and the Birth of Rock and Roll." _Labor: Studies in
Working-Class History of the Americas_ Vol. 2. No. 2 Summer 2005 page
Read S.E. Schlosser's version of the John Henry folk tale
Now John Henry was a mighty man, yes sir. He was born a slave in the 1840's but was freed after the war. He went to work as a steel-driver for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, don't ya know. And John Henry was the strongest, the most powerful man working the rails.
John Henry, he would spend his day's drilling holes by hitting thick steel spikes into rocks with his faithful shaker crouching close to the hole, turning the drill after each mighty blow. There was no one who could match him, though many tried.
Well, the new railroad was moving along right quick, thanks in now little part to the mighty John Henry. But looming right smack in its path was a mighty enemy - the Big Bend Mountain. Now the big bosses at the C&O Railroad decided that they couldn't go around the mile and a quarter thick mountain. No sir, the men of the C&O were going to go through it - drilling right into the heart of the mountain.
A thousand men would lose their lives before the great enemy was conquered.
It took three long years, and before it was done the ground outside the mountain was filled with makeshift, sandy graves. The new tunnels were filled with smoke and dust. Ya couldn't see no how and could hardly breathe. But John Henry, he worked tirelessly, drilling with a 14 pound hammer, and going 10 to 12 feet in one workday. No one else could match him.
Then one day a salesman came along to the camp. He had him a steam-powered drill. Claimed it could out-drill any man. Well, they set up a contest then and there between John Henry and that there drill. The foreman ran that newfangled steam-drill. John Henry, he just pulled out two 20 pound hammers, one in each hand. They drilled and drilled, dust rising everywhere. The men were howling and cheering. At the end of 35 minutes, John Henry had drilled - two seven foot holes - a total of fourteen feet, while the steam drill had only drilled one nine foot hole.
John Henry held up his hammers in triumph! The men shouted and cheered. The noise was so loud, it took a moment for the men to realize that John Henry was tottering. Exhausted, the mighty man crashed to the ground, the hammer's rolling from his grasp. The crowd went dead quiet as the foreman rushed to his side. But it was too late. A blood vessel had burst in his brain. The greatest driller in the O&R Railroad was dead.
Some folks say that John Henry's likeness is carved right into the rock inside the Big Bend Tunnel. And if you walk to the edge of the blackness of the tunnel, sometimes you can hear the sound of two 20 pound hammers drilling their way to victory over the machine.
Visit the American Folklore Web site
John Henry's Wikipedia Entry as of November 19, 2005
An African-American folk hero, John Henry has been the subject of numerous songs, stories, plays and novels. Like other "Big Men" (Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, Iron John), John Henry was a mythic representation of a particular group within the melting pot of the 19th century working class. In the most popular story of his life, Henry is born into the world big, mean and strong as ten men. He grows to be one of the greatest "steel-drivers" in the mid-century push to extend the railroads across the mountains to the west. The complication of the story is that, in order to save money, the owner of the railroad buys a steam-powered hammer to do the work of his mostly black driving crew. In a bid to save his job, and the jobs of his men, John Henry challenges the inventor to a contest: John Henry versus the steam hammer. John defeats the steam hammer in driving spikes, but in the process he suffers a heart attack and dies a martyr. In modern depictions John Henry is usually portrayed as hammering down rail spikes, but older songs often instead refer to him driving blasting holes into rock, part of the process of excavating railroad tunnels.
John Henry was a popular subject for many blues and folk musicians. Songs featuring the story of John Henry have been sung by Lead Belly (singing both John Henry and a variant song entitled Take This Hammer), Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Mississippi John Hurt (in his Spike Driver Blues variant of the song), Woody Guthrie, Big Bill Broonzy, Johnny Cash (singing The Legend of John Henry's Hammer), Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Fred McDowell, John Fahey (who plays both an instrumental of the original song, and an instrumental of his own John Henry Variation), Harry Belafonte, Roberta Flack and Dave Van Ronk.
The story of John Henry was re-worked in a comic song by the songwriting duo The Smothers Brothers. In their version, John Henry takes on the steam hammer and is narrowly defeated, but ends saying 'I'm gonna get me a steam drill too!'
The truth about John Henry is hidden from us, but legend has it that he was a slave born in Alabama in the 1840s and fought his famous battle with the steam hammer along the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway in Talcott, West Virginia. A statue and memorial plaque have been placed along a highway south of Talcott as it crosses over the tunnel in which the competition took place.
While he may or may not be a real character, Henry became an important symbol of the working man. Particularly important was his rejection of the classic "work ethic" so popular in the 19th century (and even today). The basic claim of the legend is that, even if you are the greatest worker that ever lived, management remains uninterested in your health and well-being. They worked John Henry to death, and then replaced him with a machine anyway. Because of this message, the legend of John Henry has been a staple of leftist politics, labor organizing and American counter-culture for well over one hundred years.
In 2000, Walt Disney Feature Animation completed a short subject based on John Henry, produced at the satellite studio in Orlando, Florida and directed by Mark Henn. However, Disney was uneasy about releasing a short about a Black folk hero created by an almost completely white production team, and John Henry was only released as part of a video compilation of Disney American Legends in 2001.
The legend of John Henry was a strong influence on the DC Comics superhero Steel, AKA John Henry Irons.
John Steventon's Cartoon Tribute to John Henry
John Henry was a childhood hero of mine, and probably one of the biggest influences on who I am and how I live my life. To me, the legend and the man are the same; I still see him as a regular guy who was confident in himself, and never, ever gave up. When he needed a job, he went and got one, convincing the boss that he was the right man for it. And when that job of Steel Driving Man was threatened by automation, he challenged that Steam Drill to a contest, and won. Sure, he died in the process, but that just adds to his legend. The point is, he said he would win, and did, against all odds. What a role model for young and old alike! It's a shame that kids these days wish to emulate sports stars, when there are legends like John Henry to remind us what the American Spirit is really about.
Like Bobby, I often invoke John Henry's spirit when faced with a daunting task such as shoveling 2 feet of snow. The same goes for everything else in my life, though; it has been a long and difficult trek in becoming a Cartoonist. I went for years with very little feedback or reward except for personal satisfaction. As a Cartoonist, though, you really need an audience; someone to tell you that yeah, you're doing the right thing, and we like it! Some financial compensation is nice, too, and justifies in another way that you are doing something worthwhile. I could have quit at any time when I was down, could have given up when opportunity was right under my nose, then snatched away. I never did give up, though, and Knight and Day nearly became syndicated, and those popular strips made up my first comic strip collection. I am still not syndicated, but my freelance career is growing, and my cartoons are finally being reprinted in books and magazines and on the web.
So here's to John Henry... he never gave up, and thanks to him, I don't either.
Please let John Steventon know what you think of this cartoon and be sure to visit his Web site.
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