John Henry, the hulking railroad worker whom with only his trusty hammer in his hand, dying to defeat the power of the steam-powered drilling machine, proving that a man’s skill wins over machine. Sacrificing himself and becoming a martyr. Coincidentally, Henry’s death symbolizes the futility and inevitability of the eventual triumph of the machine as technology ever improves. This also parallels the story of the likely real John Henry, whose story was less romantic than what most know today. This is the John Henry that most are familiar with; the Henry taught to children in elementary schools. Folklore songs celebrate him as this, and an American Hero. Most think of an image similar to the stamp seen above when thinking of Henry; an iconic, strong, noble man with perfectly ripped features. So iconic, as to be enshrined on a US postal stamp. But is this idea of Henry correct? Until as recently as 2005, historians were not even sure if the man existed. An article written by Scott Nelson in 2005 compiles strong evidence of the real life and existence of John Henry.
Perhaps the most well-known avenue for familiarizing with Henry are one of the “over four hundred versions of [songs that] exist” about Henry (Nelson 54). Nelson starts with likely the most compelling reason for Henry’s iconic status: “the song “’John Henry”’… has resonated with gang laborers and folk singers, labor organizers and fiddle bands, dime novelists and blues musicians” (53-54). Before diving into why the song holds such deep roots with an array of different factions, it is necessary to first reveal the man Nelson found John Henry to really be.
“John Henry was a convict laborer leased to the C&O railroad by the Virginia penitentiary” (Nelson 55). According to Nelson, Henry was arrested in 1866; one year after the end of the American Civil War. I will not use the word, but I think most can figure out what a black man in the very recently Confederate south would have been regarded as. Ironically, slavery was outlawed for a few years at this point, but Henry was essentially property of the Virginia penitentiary system and the C&O railroad alike. He was one of many as seen in figure 2. Nelson revealed in his article that Henry, like so many others, was forced to work sun-up to sun-down. Many African-American workers died on the job-worked to death.
As for the infamous competition with the steam-drill, Nelson sheds a less heroic light on that as well. With extensive research, Nelson found “[that] records revealed how convicts and steam drills, [worked] side by side” (66). Nelson goes on further to reveal that the likely reason for the failure of the steam drills was more of a result of the primitive technology at the time. “The steam pipes…broke down frequently, and the diamond drill often broke [off]… [The drills] lacked the flexibility that one found in the skilled two-man hammer teams” (Nelson 68). Not only were the drills Henry notoriously defeated single-handedly unreliable, workers operated in two-man teams to accomplish their feats of labor. A strikingly different vision of the mythical Henry is realized further when Nelson reveals through prison records the likely real John Henry was 5’1” and 19 years old at the time, as seen in figure 3 (Nelson 65-66).
So why then, is the legend of John Henry so popular? Returning to the point mentioned earlier: the over four-hundred versions of folk songs and even hymns of sorts have embedded themselves so deeply into African-American laboring culture, blues, even rock and roll, that the myth and legend have transcended even that into the public domain. The hymns and songs of American-south slave culture are well known. Slaves would sing these songs as a means to uplift their spirits, however meagerly, to focus their minds on something other than the forced labor at hand. Furthermore, songs were and are used to regulate a rhythm to the work, to set a pace the laborers can adhere to. Nelson discusses how these were used by railroad workers before and after Henry’s death, and how the main purpose was to regulate timed-rhythm needed to complete the work. Sound clips like the “Camp B” version allow us to hear for ourselves: http://research.culturalequity.org/get-audio-detailed-recording.do?recordingId=10703.
Other versions, like “Willie Turner’s:” https://archive.org/details/WillieTurner-JohnHenry, are less geared toward the use for laboring, but represent the numerous versions that came after. Versions like this helped to cement the story of Henry that most are familiar with today. Willie Turner’s version is an example of a blues version, which still captures the soul and tone of pain and suffering
that originated from ones like the Camp B version.
Nelson said on 54: “historians tend to regard music as background rather than raw material,” The evidence here proves otherwise, at least for the public. The romantic story originally taught about Henry, emerging from the songs passed from generations and eventually working their way into popular culture, is what many iconic stories tend to be: romantic tales. Henry’s mythic and heroic status have turned into an almost martyr-like state as new versions of the story are continually tweaked and changed. Is it better to remember John Henry for who he most likely really was, or as figure 4 depicts him in a Christ-like pose? That is for the reader to decide.
Hayden, Palmer. N.d. Aint Nothin but a Man, National Archives. NewYorkTimes.com. NY Times. Web. 11 Feb. 2016. <http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2008/04/13/books/review/downes-slideshow_3.html?_r=0>.
John Henry Army Corps. N.d. Aint Nothin but a Man. NewYorkTimes.com. Comp. Library of Congress. Web. 11 Feb. 2016. <http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2008/04/13/books/review/downes-slideshow_index-6.html>.
N.d. Aint Nothin but a Man. NewYorkTimes.com. Comp. Library of Congress. Web. 11 Feb. 2016. <http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2008/04/13/books/review/downes-slideshow_index-5.html>.
Nelson, S. “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 (2005): 53-80. Print.
“Research Center.” Research Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2016. <http://research.culturalequity.org/get-audio-detailed-recording.do?recordingId=10703>.
Turner, Willie. “Willie Turner – John Henry : Willie Turner : Free Download & Streaming : Internet Archive.” Internet Archive. Archive.org, n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2016. <https://archive.org/details/WillieTurner-JohnHenry>.
- Rebuilding the Franchise. Web. 11 Feb. 2016. <https://dabearsman.wordpress.com/2015/08/19/the-great-mystery-between-a-john-hancock-and-a-john-henry/>.