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  The Legend | Facts, Fiction and Themes | John Henry in Alabama? | Steel drivin'

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 folk heroes.

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. 

It 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.

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.

Read an unedited version of this analysis

Was John Henry from Alabama?

Last updated: December, 1998.


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