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The Legend of John Henry

The story of John Henry is one of a working man versus machine. John Henry was said to be an ex-slave, who had taken a job as a steel driver with the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Railroad. The job of a steel driver was to drive steel drills into mountains, in order to create a hole in the mountain for railroad engines to pass. John Henry was a man of legendary size and strength, who could do the work faster than any other steel driver.

A plaque celebrating the story of John Henry in West Virginia

One day, while the men of the C&O Railroad were at work building the Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia, a salesman came to the work site, bringing with him a steam hammer. The salesman had told the owners of C&O that the steam hammer could do the work of multiple steel drivers, and promised to show the owners just how effective the machine could be by demonstrating it at Big Bend.

The workers all gathered around the salesman as he made ready his machine. Worried that this machine would eventually replace them and thus take away their livelihood, John Henry challenged the salesman to a contest between himself and the machine. With John Henry on one side and the machine on the other, the competition began. John Henry drove blow after blow, eventually beating the hammer by driving more steel at the end of the day than the machine had. As the other steel drivers cheered on their best man, John Henry collapsed, dying on the spot from exhaustion.

The legacy of John Henry in American Culture

The legend of John Henry portrays various themes that are important in American Folklore. One of those themes is the power of the individual, while another is the role of the worker compared to the company. These themes were especially important during the industrial revolution, when advances in science and technology were said to be threatening the jobs of laborers and other workers. The legend of John Henry suggested that it might have been possible to defeat the advancement, but this victory would not last long.

The Legend of John Henry appears in various forms in American culture, from songs to children’s books to television shows. The legend itself likely began during the 1870’s as a song that was sung by laborers as they performed their work. The ballad took the form of folk music, a blues song, and a song of protest as it was performed by various American musicians including Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Johnny Cash, and Harry Belafonte. With the passage of time, the Legend of John Henry grew and became exaggerated, but the essential story itself continued to resonate with Americans.

In addition to his musical form, John Henry has been portrayed in sculpture, illustrations, as part of a stage play, and even as a stamp. These various portrayals of the legendary figure help ensure that John Henry remains a part of the American consciousness for years to come.

Was John Henry a Real Man?

There is some evidence that John Henry may have been just more than a legend, he may in fact have been an historical figure. There was, and is, a Big Bend Tunnel that had been built by the C&O Railroad. In fact, thousands of African Americans worked on building that tunnel, and many even died doing the work, with their unmarked graves lying at the entrance to the tunnel, at the feet of the status of John Henry. One theory of an American Historian goes that John Henry was from New Jersey, and later ended up in prison in Virginia, where he was put to work as part of a work crew to build the Big Bend Tunnel. This historian believes that it is more likely that Henry died from dust inhalation than from exhaustion.

Whatever the case, the Legend of John Henry continues to endure in American Culture as a folk hero for the workers of the 1800’s.