There 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.
The 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.
Don’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.