Tag: John Henry

Martin Luther King Jr. and the Myth of John Henry by Suet Yuk (Rainie) Au Yeung

The myth of John Henry sacrificing his life to compete with a mechanical drill reminds me of Martin Luther King Jr., who also devoted his life to contribute to the cause of fighting against a powerful social system with racial inequality.

Photo from http://www.intanibase.com/shorts.aspx?shortID=713#page=general_info

It is important to note that historian Scott Nelson discusses the legend of John Henry, a powerful black man who competed against a steam-powered hammer and died after his victory.[1] This myth could be associated with a true story of convicted laborer, who was another John Henry.[2] John Henry was a victim of the black codes when racial discrimination laws in Southern states that targeted newly freed slaves post-Civil War. He was arrested because of “housebreaking and larceny” with a10-year sentence and became a convict laborer who was leased to the C&O Railroad by the Virginia Penitentiary. [3] There is always a gap between history and legend. However, the answer to the question of “who was John Henry” seems less essential, because John Henry already transformed from a man to a myth and became an iconic figure. John Henry was an icon of African American folk hero, who portrayed the courage of a common man to challenge a powerful opponent through sweat and self-sacrifice. King also illustrated this iconic figure, as he demonstrated unyielding persistence and a fighting spirit under racial discrimination that was widespread in the legal system in the American society in 1960s.

Photo from https://tinyurl.com/ybycknnt

In the Letter from Birmingham Jail, King emphasized that fighting for racial equality is a battle between all African Americans and the segregated social system in the United States. King believed that it is essential to race against time to lead the African American community fighting the battle against discrimination because “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” [4] Similar to the myth of John Henry in which he seizes every minute and second to compete with a mechanical drill that made him an icon of a courageous man against a machine, King is an icon of a brave man going against the social system as he competes against time unremittingly to challenge racial discrimination that was established in American society for hundreds of years.

Although the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, gave African Americans citizenship and equal protection under the law and the 15th Amendment in 1870 granted Blacks the right to vote, African Americans remained far away from obtaining equality. Southern states established “Jim Crow” laws in the late 19th century, which segregated African Americans from whites in all public facilities.[5] Even though the roots of racism deeply shaped the American society, it did not prevent King from challenging inequality that was established in America since its founding. In Martin Luther King: “Now is the time,” author Angela Herbert demonstrates the struggles of King as a civil rights activist. Not only did King face intense pressure, he was also “arrested 30 times and imprisoned along with a number of students and fellow colleagues as a result of their engagement in non-violent protests.”[6] The oppression faced by King did not stop him from challenging racism; he contributed to unite the African American community through his public speeches and literature work.

Photo from http://hero.wikia.com/wiki/John_Henry

Like John Henry in the legend, who sacrificed his life and illustrated a heroic fighting spirit, King made powerful speeches that fiercely criticized racial discrimination and his assassination shaped him as an epic martyr who devoted his life to push an important step that catalyzed the Civil Rights Movement against racism. Literary critic Michiko Kakutani emphasizes that King “knew how to read his audience and react to it.” [7] King used the power of words with vivid imagery and strong emotion to give African Americans courage and hope. Today, many children watch the Disney version of John Henry and they might fall into sadness when they see John Henry die after his victory. King’s powerful speeches evoke the same emotions and are able to bring people to tears. King united African Americans and challenged the formidable racism in American society, which made him an iconic hero.

Similar to the myth of John Henry, hammering again and again to compete with a massive machine, King attacked the intensive racism that had deep roots in this country through word by word in his speeches. Even though John Henry and King faced mighty opponents, their indomitable fighting spirit demonstrate an iconic American spirit of struggle in which a victim in predicament could become a hero through persistence and self-sacrifice for a greater cause.


[1] Scott Nelson, “Who Was John Henry? Railroad Construction, Southern Folklore, and the Birth

of Rock and Roll,” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas,Vol. 2. No. 2 (2005): 53.

[2] Ibid., 66.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.],” Africana Studies at

University of Pennsylvania, April 16, 1963,

https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html, accessed February 14, 2018).

[5] “Civil Rights Movement,” Black History, HISTORY.com,

http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/civil-rights-movement, (accessed February 14, 2018).

[6] Angela Herbert, Martin Luther King: “Now is the time”( London: Springer International

Publishing, 2016), 10.

[7] Michiko Kakutani , “The Lasting Power of Dr. King’s Dream Speech,” New York Times,

August 27, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/28/us/the-lasting-power-of-dr-kings-dream-speech.html (accessed February 14, 2018).

John Henry: Falsifying Disney’s Version and the Real Deal by Morgan Evans    

The Disney image of history is, more often than not, fictionalized in order to produce a better movie plot. There are several examples of historical figures that were manipulated in to animal-befriending, stunningly beautiful, and missing at least one parent, prince or princess. Pocahontas is an example of a historical figure turned Disney princess with a fictionalized story with talking trees and in reality, helped the settlers a lot less than her Disney princess is portrayed to do.

John Henry’s legend was also modified for the Disney version. For those who may have never heard the legend, John Henry was imprisoned for a crime during the black code era. He was then a steel worker working on a railway that challenged a new machine that was supposedly faster than humans. Henry ultimately defeated the machine by completing more by the day’s end. Due to exhaustion, Henry died after beating the steel machine.

We know from historical context and from the accounts of what actually happened on the construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio railroad from 1870-1873, no white men worked on the railway. It was solely black men. In the Disney version, there are men of all different races working on the railroad. This is fictionalized, Henry, along with the other workers were leased from prisons to work for the railroad for cheap labor.

The classic folk song that has been covered by artists like Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Presley, was even changed for the Disney story. There are over four hundred versions of the song, however, they are all held together by the common themes in the song that highlight John Henry’s life like his death and being buried at the White House[1]. Arguably the most famous part about Henry’s legend, the song, could not make the cut for its original content in the Disney cartoon.

The “promised land” is the land that is granted to the individuals in the Disney short film for the workers constructing the railroad. If they finish the project, they will receive this land in exchange. In reality, there was no promised land. With that, there was no bet with the man operating the machine that John had to beat in order to get the land that they were promised in the first place. And after his passing, it was not like in the Disney short that Henry saved the day for all those who outlived him and were able to live on the land and remember the man who made it all possible.

The Disney character is also sketched out to be dramatically large, with a ridiculously unrealistic shoulder to waist ratio. His brawn figure is also falsified from the real recorded prison records of John Henry. The real John Henry was actually only 5’1″[2]. This makes it highly unlikely that he looked at all like the Disney version that makes him look superhuman with god-like strength. As exemplified below when he arm wrestles two other men with ease.

The Disney story makes John Henry as a slave. His steel hammer is even made out of the chains that were used during his enslavement and given as a wedding gift by his wife, Polly Ann. This is completely false. John Henry was not born a free man, but he was imprisoned after being freed from slavery.

What the Disney movie did get right, however, was the death of John Henry. He literally worked himself to death in pursuit of defeating the machine. Although John Henry is the legend that lives, there were hundreds of men that died doing the same thing that he did.  Unlike the Disney short however, legend is that he was buried at the White House, a nearby penitentiary. John Henry lives on, however, through all of his reproductions in movies, song, and books.

[1] Nelson, Scott, Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, (Chicago: Oxford University Press, 2006), 55

[1] Ibid, 65

“The Swiftest on the Line” by Celeste Joyce

I had never heard of John Henry before this class. As I read the articles about his legend, much of the mythology and language surrounding him was completely new to me. I did find a simple sentiment which resonated with me, and seemed familiar. The longer I read and listened and watched, the more John Henry’s story and song reminded me of a song I have known for a long time.

When I was younger, I got myself a record player. The first record I bought for myself was a Joan Baez album. It featured old folk songs, rendered beautifully in her soprano voice. One song on the album that always stood out to me was “Engine 143.” The song is about a train wreck tragedy, and based upon a real event. After doing the readings for the week I revisited it and researched it. Much to my surprise, one of the first lyrics references the C & O Railroad, the very same company John Henry worked for.

Here are the lyrics in full:

Along came the FFV the swiftest on the line

Running o’er the C and O road just twenty minutes behind
Running into Sou’ville headquarters on the line
Receiving their strict orders from a station just behind
Georgie’s mother came to him with a bucket on her arm
Saying my darling son be careful how you run

For many a man has lost his life in trying to make lost time
And if you run your engine right you’ll get there just on time
Up the road he darted against the rocks he crushed

Upside down the engine turned and Georgie’s breast did smash
His head lay against the firebox door the flames are rolling high
I’m proud to be born for an engineer to die on the C&O road

The doctor said to Georgie my darling boy be still

Your life may yet be saved if it is God’s blessed will
Oh no said George that will not do I want to die so free
I want to die for the engine I love one hundred and forty three

The doctor said to Georgie your life cannot be saved
Murdered upon a railroad and laid in a lonesome grave
His face was covered up with blood his eyes they could not see
And the very last words poor Georgie cried was nearer my God to thee[1]



What always surprised me was the tone of the song. I found it to be rather cheery, despite the horrific event it was based upon. The parallels between this song and the story of John Henry are manifold. It addresses the breakneck pace of innovation, and the consequences of trying to keep up with it. Both myths feature a cautioning woman, Georgie’s mother and Henry’s wife[2], whose warnings are not heeded. Like John Henry, Georgie faces a tragic yet virtuous death.[3] And like in John Henry’s story, the railroad company (the very same C & O) is not cast as a villain, although they directly cause the hero’s death by pushing him too far. Perhaps more so in “Engine 143,” C & O- and by extension progress itself- is declared to be a cause worth dying for.

Further research revealed that the “train wreck” song is something of an American icon in itself.[4] One article listed the ways in which the train itself has deeply affected many of our American idioms. Phrases such as sidetracked, derailed, train of thought, hell on wheels, blowing their stack, right/wrong side of the tracks, are all direct references to trains.[5] The article went on to list a multitude of folk songs influenced by trains, including a list of train disasters. Such songs as “Casey’s Song” and “The Wreck of Old ‘97” both deal with train-related tragedies. “Casey’s Song” lyrics in particular sound so similar to “Engine 143” that I thought it was about the same disaster.[6]

These songs reveal American virtues. As we discussed in class, the obsession with progress, hard work, and innovation are especially prevalent. These songs could serve as a warning about progress, greedy corporations, overexertion, etc., but instead they have become a way to enforce these virtues. John Henry is directly compared to a biblical hero,[7] and Georgie meets God at the end of “Engine 143.” These virtues most certainly have a darker side. Perhaps these songs and myths could be used to expose them, and not simply as a motivational story as in Disney’s John Henry.

[1] https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/joanbaez/engine143.html

[2] Disney, “John Henry,” (Walt Disney Animation Studios, 2000).

[3] Scott Nelson, “Who Was John Henry?” (Oxford University Press, 2006).

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Engine_One-Forty-Three

[5] Stephanie Hall, “The Folklore and Folksong of Trains in America, Part Two” (Library of Congress, 2015). https://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2015/08/folklore-of-trains-in-usa-part-two/.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Scott Nelson, “Who Was John Henry?” (Oxford University Press, 2006).

Song & Voice by Casey Watson


I’m smack dab in the middle of my research into Woody Guthrie’s iconic “This Land is Your Land,” arguably one of the most recognizable songs in the American folk song catalog or the whole of American music for that matter. We all know it. It is as pervasive in our culture as it is catchy. And while I dig and sift through biographies of Guthrie and articles addressing the dissentious message of the song, I’m reminded of something Scott Nelson mentioned in his John Henry piece: “Historians tend to regard music as background rather than raw material. Appropriated for book titles by countless historians, music itself is seldom seen as a primary source.”[1] I believe he is right. But obviously the role of music in memory is more complex, permeating almost all of our lives.

A friend of mine, a pop-music critic, made this observation in her article reconsidering Kanye West’s Yeezus earlier this year: “…music…[is] always in the air, always ready to sneak up on you, sometimes when you least expect it. There’s no telling, especially not on first listen, how many times you’ll hear a given song or album over a lifetime, or which listen will be the one when it finally clicks with you, if it’s to click at all. Maybe it’ll be the first, or third. Maybe it’ll be the thousandth.”[2] She’s pointing to the fact that a piece of music, more so than any other piece of artwork, can be consumed and internalized over and over in huge numbers. I believe that this unique ability of a song is precisely the reason that it is so easily considered “background” by historians or other researchers. Because a song can be replayed seemingly ad infinitum, coupled with the tendency for the listener to develop a personal connection and interpretation of said song (it’s art, right? It’s can be whatever you need it to be), we as listeners are able to retrofit it with new significance and personal meaning. In doing so, the song is slowly removed from its origins and in some cases, such as “This Land is Your Land”, transformed into an icon; a useful, malleable cultural tool.

Now then. Why does this matter? While doing my research, it occurred to me that perhaps a song’s ability to take on so many meanings while burrowing deeper and deeper into our cultural subconscious with each replay is the reason that songs are so often marginalized by some historians. In my opinion, this is foolish particularly when the subject is a folk song. Folk songs are stories and stories are seldom created for leisure. They come from specific circumstances and are sometimes the only traces the voice of a particular group. “This Land is Your Land” has taken on a life of its own since Guthrie penned it (as icons are wont to do). But we must not forget that his voice was that of the disenfranchised during the Dust Bowl. His words are telling and must not be forgotten as the song is sung by children at camp or Presidential hopefuls.

[1] Scott Nelson, “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): 54-55.

[2] Lindsay Zoladz, “Reviewing Yeezus in 2016 to Better Understand Kanye West and The Life of Pablo.” Review of Yeezus. Vulture, February 14, 2016. http://www.vulture.com/2016/02/kanye-west-the-life-of-pablo-review-yeezus.html.


A Steel-Driving Man by Casey Watson

jhThere are two men sitting across from one another. One is a tall, powerfully built man with strength that approaches superhuman and determination to match. He is a hero. People write stories about him defeating a massive steam drill with his mighty hammer while building on the rail road. This man is a legend. A gleaming champion of the working man and the definition of a physically fit human. His eventual death will give way to books, movies, and songs commemorating his achievement. The other man is far more mysterious, his story a swirling cloud of conflicting accounts and poorly maintained records. He is a short young man from New Jersey. Or maybe he isn’t. He worked and died while driving steel in Virginia at Big Bend Tunnel. Or Lewis Tunnel. Or is it Coosa Mountain Tunnel? It’s difficult to say. Wherever he worked or whoever he was, people seem to know him; to have worked with him. They sing ballads about his death, one which will slip into oblivion with little to no mention in historical record. Both of these men are John Henry.

The massive gap in characterization between the two, coupled with a patchwork of various penitentiary, court, and rail records, as well as a sizable body of references within pop culture, leads me to a fundamental question: when it comes to an icon like John Henry, how much does the “truth” actually matter? Historical research into Henry, like that of Scott Nelson, and the popular tale both point to the man working on a Virginia railroad in the early 1870s. The folktale of the heroic John Henry has become an American classic and adapted by Disney, sung by artists like Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger, or transformed into DC Comic’s Steel. However, his historical significance, as Nelson interprets it, lives on almost exclusively in the work songs of Black rail road workers, trickling into the corpus of American work songs. This is not to say that the influence of these kinds of songs is insignificant, nor that his story is without value. But ultimately, the John Henry that Nelson digs up is arrested, works, and dies without much notice, historically speaking. With this in mind, I wonder if there is any point to uncovering the historical John Henry insofar as American collective memory or iconography is concerned. Where historians surely recognize the value in the collection and analysis of sources as a means to appreciate the cultures and experiences of the past, the majority of Americans not only seem fine with the the simplified folktale of John Henry, but actually appear to use him as a figure of inspiration.

JH5The John Henry portrayed in the 2000 Disney short is the people’s champion, envisioned as a Reconstruction-era Moses, leading the rail workers to the “promised land”, the land of Canaan. He follows his dream and dies having realized it. He is someone to be like. Steel, or John Henry Irons, of DC Comics is an intellectual and inventor, taking up the mantle of Superman after his death. Like the folktale, Irons fights back against the Machine of the modern weapons industry with the iconic hammer of John Henry. These are positive Black roles models who teach young Black children to work hard with determination and moral conviction. If they do, they can beat “the machine” and ascend to greatness.

JH6Don’t get me wrong. I’m not scoffing at these ideals or the power that icons like John Henry possess. It simply troubles me that, by reimagining this man, whoever he really was, we as a people lose sight of the horrible deaths suffered by the hundreds who built the railroads. We might forget the racial component that allowed convicts to work and die without notice. The existence and perpetuation of a positive Black icon is a worthy cause, but I think there is great danger in forgetting where these legends are born and, in this case, die.

“Aint Nothin but a Man”by Geren W. Weaver

Jstamp1ohn 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 aJH2.jpgre 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 JH3to 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 JH4numerous 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.

Works Cited

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>.

  1. 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/>.


John Henry, Timeless Visual Icon by Benjamin Pitock

jhThis 1996 art deco illustration of John Henry, featured on postage stamps, illustrates the beginnings of integration and positive racial relations that were hallmarks of the 20th century. John Henry is pictured alongside a seemingly modernized rail, smiling contently toward the horizon with his iconic hammer. Although the illustration takes the style of an earlier era, it was printed in the 90’s, a much more integrated period than that of the style it attempts to emulate. That being said, even despite the significant social change between the early 20th century and the time of that art style and the 1990’s, the beginnings of said change were already evident by the 1920’s with employment opportunities slowly but surely opening up for black Americans.

In the traditional style of a John Henry depiction, as described by Scott Nelson’s, “Who Was John Henry?”, Henry is shown holding a hammer alongside an operating rail, seemingly implying his contribution toward its construction. As prescribed by John Henry’s eponymous folk tune, the hammer is shown prominently in the frame; Further allusions to the folksong can be found in the orientation of the train in the background, climbing a vague structure that could easily be interpreted as being “in these mountains”, as described by the song.

The image harkens back to 20th century industrial propaganda, a common occurrence in most western nations through the 1950’s. A colorful, confident, and nationalistic depiction of white men helping to build their countries was common in the United States, Europe, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union all throughout that time. This illustration of Henry almost flips that archetypical painting on its head by depicting a black man as responsible for American prosperity– truly a sign of the times for the progressive 1990’s. Although this illustration makes few allusions to the potentially true stories of John Henry, it rings very true to his myth, and shows how the archetype of his character has remained relevant into the present day.

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.

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.

John Henry and The Walking Dead – by Alexander Matthew Cabrey

I’m a fan of the show and graphic novel The Walking Dead, and there is a walking-dead-comic-con-2013-banner-tyreese-hammercharacter who appears in the both who harkens back to some ideas of John Henry. The character is Tyreese, a burly African American man who brandishes his weapon of choice: the hammer.

His character in the comic and show are somewhat different but have very similar characteristics. He is a strong and reliable in moments of danger. I’ve inclhan image of Tyreese from the show (played by Chad Coleman, who I think looks a bit like a John Henry figure).

I’ve also included an image of the Tyreese character portrayed in the comic, who I find to be very similar to some of the John Henry images we viewed in class. I would compare him to some of the images created by the Gellert brothers during the 1930s for posters.

Within both forms of The Walking Dead (TWD), Walking_Dead_Tyreese_SpecialTyreese has a moment where the audience/readers expect him to perish. John Henry’s death at the end of his legend is unexpected.  In TWD the audience is led to believe Tyreese has died while saving the rest of the group.  But eventually we learn of his survival.  Looking at Tyreese, I find he has some connections to John Henry and the legend then I had noticed before.

Shifting gears to the Nelson piece, I think they connect well to Tyreese’s image. Nelson points out how the John Henry image is used, almost repurposed, to fit a group’s agenda or position. American Communist Party used him as a way to bring in African American members into the Party in the 1930s.  And since then  his image has changed more and more.  Nelson even attempts to make a connection to some of the original superheroes.

I feel the John Henry image and idea has created a basis for many African American protagonists that you might find in any media. The John Henry image is a strong, hard-working individual who may not choose to be in his current situation but proves his effort by persevering through impossible odds—only to die later. Perhaps we’ll find that Tyreese fits the John Henry story even more closely once we learn his fate.