Tag: Scott Nelson

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.

John Henry Irons and the LA Riots – by Alison M. McCarron

John Henry Irons is the full name of the DC Comics superhero Steel. In this illustration, Steel is depicted in his iron suit of armor carrying the iconic sledgehammer. On his right arm is a weapon that shoots out large metal spikes, similar to the ones John Henry laid as railroad tracks. Just as in the Benton illustration found in Scott Nelson’s book, Steel is depicted as larger-than-life, with exaggerated musculature that still fits proportionally with the rest of his body. The red cape is reminiscent of Superman and Captain America, the first superheroes designed overtly with the John Henry in mind.

steelIn searching for my image, I learned a bit about the character of John Henry Irons from the DC Comics. In the DC Comics world, there are many multiverses in which the characters exist. In the universe I have researched, Steel replaces Superman upon his death. Steel has no true superhuman skills, like the ability to fly or regenerate after being injured; he is simply an extremely large, strong, man with amazing athletic ability, much like the man upon which he is based. Steel is a skilled craftsman, and he crafted his steel uniform and weaponry himself. According to his backstory, his great-grandfather had worked with the original steel-driving John Henry, and he was likely named after the hero.[1]  While the superhero is not outright political, his backstory does liken him to Henry.  Irons was raised by his grandparents, two prominent members of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s. This speaks to the how the image of John Henry was used by union organizers and the Black Power movement as a tool to illustrate problems in the South during this period and with race relations throughout the country.

However, DC Comics includes women in their version of John Henry legend, while Nelson explains the difficulties the Communist Party had in including women in their work, and points out that the Party seemed to devalue the contributions of women to the worker’s movement (Nelson 159). However, within the story of Steel, women are an important part of the story. Irons’ niece, Natasha, is prominently featured in the plot, as an intelligent student who worked at one point for a U.S. Senator. The role of Steel is even passed on to Natasha when he becomes injured.

During WWII, John Henry was used as an American icon to combat the racialization of America and find “a common nationalism that transcended race,” distancing the country from German Nazis and the Japanese (Nelson 163). Interestingly, the character of John Henry Steel was introduced in The Adventures of Superman #500 in June 1993. This was similarly a time of extreme racial tension in the United States. The Los Angeles Riots following the Rodney King verdict occurred in late April and early May of 1992, and the federal grand jury trial of the officers ended in April of 1993. Perhaps the introduction of this ingenious, powerful, black superhero, was an attempt by artists and writers to do, in the name of nationalism, as the generation before them did, to quell or simply obscure racial unrest.

[1] Andrivet, Sébastien Alexandre. “Steel – Man of Steel – DC Comics – John Henry Irons.” Write Ups. Ed. Joshua D. Marqua. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2015. <http://www.writeups.org/fiche.php?id=4489#>.

A Darker John Henry – by Alisha Evelissa Rivera

The John Henry I found appears in issues 3 and 4 of “DC: The New Frontier” John_Henry_New_Frontiercreated by Darwyn Cooke. When I first looked at the picture, I noticed that like the other forms of art observed in the Nelson readings, the John Henry depicted in this picture carries with him the strength and hammer that is synonymous with in his name and story. Also, like many superheroes drawn for comic books, John Henry is imaged as “a balloon-muscled strongman” to emphasis his power and strength (Nelson 161).

However, unlike the many other recreations of John Henry, Cook’s Henry is created to look like a menacing character. The combination of the black mask on his head, with a rope around his neck, and the lyrics to those specific lyrics to his ballad, is unsettling. This picture looks like the opposite of the Communist/Black Power/American hero that Nelson talks about in his book. In fact, he looks like the villain of this piece. In order to understand this intensity, the picture forced me to read more on the comic book character version of John Henry.

I found out that in “The New Frontier” he isn’t introduced as John Henry at first. Actually, his name was initially John Wilson. In this version of the John Henry tale, John Wilson is a respectable man and a veteran of the Korean War. After returning home, he became a steel worker. Things changed when the Ku Klux Klan murdered his entire family while also lynching him.

Having survived his lynching, John Wilson avenges his family by using his signature hammer and by changing his name to John Henry. The only words that fill the page of the comic come from the song, and provide the background while he terrorizes the Klan.  He does this for three months before falling over and dying himself. There are two ways of reading this: either John Wilson is the reimagining of the John Henry story or John Wilson, having been presumably brought up on the John Henry story took up his identity, much like V took Guy Fawkes’s identity in V for Vendetta. I believe that legend of John Henry exists and is known within the DC Universe, and so the legend that a man strong enough to drill further and faster than a steam drill would be known. Much like the Communist Party used Henry as the poster child for hard work of a human verses the work done by machine (Nelson 152), Wilson is using the “strong, determined” version of Henry to strike fear into Klan.

Whichever way you view it, this John Henry leans closer towards the image of John Henry that was used to entice a “new kind of multiracial America” (Nelson 164).  By snuffing out the Klan with his hammer, he is simultaneously striking down the injustices created by racism.