Disney and John Henry – by Kelsey Miranda

Walt Disney Pictures created an animated short depicting the life of American jh1legend John Henry.  The cartoon tells a story of two freed slaves John Henry and his wife Polly Ann on the search for work and a new home during Reconstruction. John Henry finds a crew of exhausted workers who are having trouble completing the railroad’s deadline.  The railroad company has a contract with the workers; if they complete their deadline on time the workers are entitled to 50 acres of land.  John Henry gets right to work but workers become fearful when a steam-powered drill comes to finish the job. The laborers contracts will be broken if the steam-powered drill proves to be more efficient. This part of the film dealt with the anxiety workers had during this time that industries would replace manpower with machines. In Nelson’s reading this anxiety propelled labor unions and the communist party to use pictures of John Henry to represent Black laborers.

In the film American hero John Henry will not let his crew lose their land due to the machine, which results in a competition between John Henry and the steam-powered drill.  Whoever gets the most work done by sundown wins the competition. John Henry with two hammers beats the machine; the workers and his wife Polly Ann were given the land that they were promised in their contract. Unfortunately, John Henry loses his life due to exhaustion and the movie ends with Polly Ann telling this story to her and John’s son. In the film, Disney recreated versions of the worker songs about John Henry, which showed the icon’s lasting power in American Folk music.

In the readingJH2s by Scott Reynolds Nelson stated music teachers taught rhythm using John Henry folk songs during the 1950’s and later. He was also written about in many children books but was not discussed in other disciplines due to the association with the communist party.  This Disney short was a part of a compilation called American Legends and the addition of the John Henry short was only released recently compared to the other shorts that were released in the 1950s. This displayed the controversy that surrounded the icon but his popularity continued through children stories, music, and movies.  John Henry has had a strong lasting power in American society and is one of the greatest African American heroes.

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