John Henry: The White Guy?!?! by Deidre Rowe

jhThe legend of John Henry is the story of a black man who worked on the C&O railroad in Virginia. He was a convict who was arrested for housebreaking and larceny.  In 1870, he and other convicts were shipped to Lewis Tunnel; where legend states he dies.

Throughout the years, his legend has received attention for folklore scholars. One common theme of these findings were that the people who were telling any part of the back knowledge of John Henry were white.  Nelson brings up the beginnings of how scho
lars were trying to find out if this story was true or not. One individual that I thought was interesting was Louis Watson Chappell. He wrote an article that on how John Henry was a real person and that he has proof of it. What made this even more outrageous was that he used “his own connections, largely among whites near Talcott” (59) as his main source of information for his findings.Capture

This is a huge deal due to the fact that Chappell would speak on his trustworthiness of the white men. This story is of a black man from Virginia and it is being “whitafied”. Chappell claimed that the secondhand stories of white men were preferable than the firsthand stories of blacks who lived in West Virginia and Virginia. This raises my question of, is the story of John Henry even a little bit black? I make that statement because I find that one large account of what we have of his tale is told by many white men. But I don’t feel like that makes his story anywhere near a common black person’s live at the time? I feel that if this legend is only being told by mainly white men, that the story maybe shifted to what white people thought a black man’s life was like; not to what it really was.

Many of the songs that I have heard on John Henry were sung by white artists. Now this maybe that many American folk artists are white but this is no different than Chappell’s asking of white men about John Henry.


Ballad of John Henry by Doc Watson

Legend of John Henry’s Hammer by Johnny Cash


Nelson, S. 2005. Who was john henry? railroad construction, southern folklore, and the birth of rock and roll. Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas 2 (2): 53-80.

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