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He worked as a "steel-driver"—a man tasked with hammering a steel drill into rock to make holes for explosives to blast the rock away. He died during the construction of a tunnel for a railroad. In the legend, John Henry's prowess as a steel-driver was measured in a race against a steam powered hammer, which he won, only to die in victory with his hammer in his hand and heart giving out from stress. The story of John Henry has been the subject of numerous songs, stories, plays, books and novels.
The historicity of many aspects of the John Henry legend is subject to debate. Until recently it was generally believed that the race between a man and a steam hammer described in the ballad occurred during the construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway in the 1870s.
In particular, the race was thought to have occurred during the boring of Big Bend tunnel near Talcott, West Virginia between 1869 and 1871. Talcott holds a yearly festival named for Henry and a statue and memorial plaque have been placed along a highway south of Talcott as it crosses over the Big Bend tunnel. (Coords )
In the 2006 book Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend, Scott Reynolds Nelson, an associate professor of history at the College of William and Mary, contends that the John Henry of the ballad was based on a real person, the 20-year-old New Jersey-born African-American freeman, John William Henry (prisoner #497 in the Virginia penitentiary). Nelson speculates that Henry, like many African Americans might have come to Virginia to work on the clean-up of the battlefields after the Civil War. Arrested and tried for burglary, he was among the many convicts released by the warden to work as leased labor on the C&O Railway.:39
According to Nelson, conditions at the Virginia prison were so terrible that the warden, an idealistic Quaker from Maine, believed the prisoners, many of whom had been arrested on trivial charges, would be better clothed and fed if they were released as laborers to private contractors (he subsequently changed his mind about this and became an opponent of the convict labor system). Nelson asserts that a steam drill race at the Big Bend Tunnel would have been impossible because railroad records do not indicate a steam drill being used there.
Instead, Nelson argues that the contest must have taken place 40 miles away at the Lewis Tunnel, between Talcott and Millboro, Virginia, where records indicate that prisoners did indeed work beside steam drills night and day. Nelson also argues that the verses of the ballad about John Henry being buried near "the white house", "in sand", somewhere that locomotives roar, mean that Henry's body was buried in the cemetery behind the main building of the Virginia penitentiary, which photos from that time indicate was painted white, and where numerous unmarked graves have been found.
Prison records for John William Henry stopped in 1873, suggesting that he was kept on the record books until it was clear that he was not coming back and had died. The evidence assembled by Nelson, though suggestive, is circumstantial; Nelson himself stresses that John Henry would have been representative of the many hundreds of convict laborers who were killed in unknown circumstances tunneling through the mountains or who died shortly afterwards of silicosis from dust created by the drills and blasting.
The well-known narrative ballad of "John Henry" is usually sung in at an upbeat tempo. The hammer songs (or work songs) associated with the "John Henry" ballad, however, are not. Sung slowly and deliberately, these songs usually contain the lines "This old hammer killed John Henry / but it won't kill me." Nelson explains that:
...workers managed their labor by setting a "stint," or pace, for it. Men who violated the stint were shunned ... Here was a song that told you what happened to men who worked too fast: they died ugly deaths; their entrails fell on the ground. You sang the song slowly, you worked slowly, you guarded your life, or you died.:32
There is some controversy among scholars over which came first, the ballad or the hammer songs. Some scholars have suggested that the "John Henry" ballad grew out of the hammer songs, while others believe that the two were always entirely separate.
There is another tradition that John Henry's famous race took place, not in West Virginia, but rather near Leeds, Alabama. Retired chemistry professor and folklorist John Garst, of the University of Georgia, has argued that the contest happened at the Coosa Mountain Tunnel or the Oak Mountain Tunnel of the Columbus and Western Railway (now part of Norfolk Southern Railway) near Leeds on September 20, 1887.
Based on documentation that corresponds with the account of C. C. Spencer, who claimed in the 1920s to have witnessed the contest, Garst speculates that John Henry may have been a man named Henry who was born a slave to P.A.L. Dabney, the father of the chief engineer of that railroad, in 1850. Since 2007, the city of Leeds has honored John Henry's legend during an annual September festival, held on the third weekend in September, called the Leeds Downtown Folk Festival & John Henry Celebration.
|“||John Henry is a symbol of physical strength and endurance, of exploited labor, of the dignity of a human being against the degradations of the machine age, and of racial pride and solidarity. During World War II his image was used in U.S. government propaganda as a symbol of social tolerance and diversity.||”|
The story of John Henry is traditionally told through two types of songs: ballads, commonly referred to as "The Ballad of John Henry", and work songs known as hammer songs, each with wide-ranging and varying lyrics. Some songs, and some early folk historian research, conflate the songs about John Henry with those of John Hardy, a West Virginian outlaw. Ballads about John Henry's life typically contain four major components: a premonition by John Henry as a child that steel-driving would lead to his death, the lead-up to and the results of the race against the steam hammer, Henry's death and burial, and the reaction of John Henry's wife.
Songs featuring the story of John Henry have been recorded by many blues, folk, and rock musicians of different ethnic backgrounds. Many notable musicians have recorded John Henry ballads, including: Johnny Cash, Drive By Truckers, Joe Bonamassa, Furry Lewis, Big Bill Broonzy, Pink Anderson, Fiddlin' John Carson, Uncle Dave Macon, J. E. Mainer, Leon Bibb, Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Gillian Welch, Cuff the Duke, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Jerry Reed, Jerry Lee Lewis. and Harry Belafonte
Henry is the subject of the 1931 Roark Bradford novel John Henry, illustrated by noted woodcut artist J. J. Lankes. The novel was adapted into a stage musical in 1940, starring Paul Robeson in the title role. According to Steven Carl Tracy, Bradford's works were influential in broadly popularizing the John Henry legend beyond railroad and mining communities and outside of African American oral histories. In a 1933 article published in The Journal of Negro Education, Bradford's John Henry was criticized for "making over a folk-hero into a clown." A 1948 obituary for Bradford described John Henry as "a better piece of native folklore than Paul Bunyan."
Ezra Jack Keats's John Henry: An American Legend, published in 1965, is a notable picture book chronicling the history of John Henry and portraying him as the "personification of the medieval Everyman who struggles against insurmountable odds and wins."
Colson Whitehead's 2001 novel John Henry Days uses the John Henry myth as story background. Whitehead fictionalized the John Henry Days festival in Talcott, West Virginia and the release of the John Henry postage stamp in 1996.
The Ghost of John Henry appears as a character in Elizabeth Bear's novel One Eyed Jack
In 1995, John Henry appeared in the Disney film Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill portrayed by Roger Aaron Brown.
"John Henry in Leeds", Leeds Folk Festival
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