John Henry (folklore)

John Henry (folklore)

John Henry is an American folk hero, who has been the subject of numerous songs, stories, plays, and novels.

Like other "Big Men" such as Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, and Iron John, John Henry also served as a mythical representation of a group within the melting pot of the 19th-century working class. In the most popular version of the story, Henry is not born into the world big and strong. He grows to become the greatest "steel-driver" in the mid-century push to erect the railroads across the mountains to the West. When the owner of the railroad buys a steam-powered hammer to do the work of his mostly black driving crew, to save his job and the jobs of his men, John Henry challenges the owner to a contest: himself alone versus the steam hammer. John Henry bests the machine, but exhausted, collapses, and dies.

In modern depictions John Henry is often portrayed as hammering down rail spikes, but older versions depict him as being born with a hammer in his hand; driving blasting holes into rock, part of the process of excavating railroad tunnels and cuttings. In almost all versions of the story, John Henry is a black man and serves as a folk hero for all American working-class people, representing their marginalization during changes entering the modern age in America. While the character may or may not have been based on a real person, Henry became an important symbol of the working class. His story is usually seen as an archetypal illustration of the futility of fighting the technological progress that was evident in the 19th century upset of traditional physical labor roles. Some labor advocates interpret the legend as illustrating that even the most skilled workers of time-honored practices are marginalized when companies are more interested in efficiency and production than in their employee's health and well-being. Although John Henry proved himself more efficient than the steam-drill, he worked himself to death and was replaced by the machine anyway. Thus the legend of John Henry has been a staple of American labor and mythology for well over one hundred years.


The truth about John Henry as the strongest man alive is obscured by time and myth, but one legend has it that he was a slave born in Missouri in the 1840s and fought his famous battle with the steam hammer along the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway in Talcott, West Virginia. A statue and memorial plaque have been placed along a highway south of Talcott as it crosses over the tunnel in which the competition may have taken place.

The railroad historian Roy C. Long found that there were multiple Big Bend Tunnels along the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Railway. Also, the C&O employed multiple black men who went by the name "John Henry" at the time that those tunnels were being built. Though he could not find any documentary evidence, he believes on the basis of anecdotal evidence that the contest between man and machine did indeed happen at the Talcott, West Virginia, site because of the presence of all three (a man named John Henry, a tunnel named Big Bend, and a steam-powered drill) at the same time at that place. [cite journal | last = Long | first = Roy C. | title = Big Bend Times
journal = C&O History | year = 1991

The book "Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend" by Scott Reynolds Nelson, an associate professor of history at the College of William and Mary, argues that John William Henry, a prisoner in Virginia leased by the warden to work on the C&O Railway in the 1870s, is the basis for the legendary John Henry. [Grimes, William. ["Taking Swings at a Myth, With John Henry the Man"] , "New York Times", Books section, October 18, 2006.]

Retired chemistry professor and folklorist John Garst has argued that the contest instead happened at the Coosa Mountain Tunnel or the Oak Mountain Tunnel of the Columbus and Western Railway (now part of Norfolk Southern) near Leeds, Alabama on September 20, 1887. Based on documentation that corresponds with the account of C. C. Spencer, who claimed in the 1920s to have witnessed the contest, Garst speculates that John Henry may have been a man named Henry who was born a slave to P.A.L. Dabney, the father of the chief engineer of that railroad, in 1850. [cite journal | last = Garst | first = John | title = Chasing John Henry in Alabama and Mississippi: A Personal Memoir of Work in Progress | journal = Tributaries: Journal of the Alabama Folklife Association | volume = 5 | year = 2002 | pages = 92–129] The city of Leeds is making plans to honor John Henry's legend with an exhibit in its Bass House historical museum and with a planned annual festival culminating on the third Saturday of September. [cite news |first = William
last = Thornton |title = Leeds' plans for saluting Henry |work = Birmingham News |date = September 3, 2006 |accessdate = September 3, 2006
] [cite news |first = Don
last = Clowers |title = John Henry - Leeds connection doesn't exist |work = Leeds News |date = September 14, 2006 |accessdate = September 14, 2006

Though no documentary proof has emerged to rule out either theory, both Talcott and Leeds use their supposed connections with the legend in promotional and educational literature and events. Every year, on the weekend after the fourth of July, the town of Talcott hosts a celebration known as "John Henry Days." The weekend includes many yard sales, a parade, fireworks, and a rubber ducky race.

References in popular culture


Songs featuring the story of John Henry have been sung by many blues, folk, and rock musicians, including Leadbelly (singing both "John Henry" and a variant entitled "Take This Hammer"), Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Paul Robeson, Mississippi John Hurt (in his "Spike Driver Blues" variant of the song), Woody Guthrie, Merle Travis, Pete Seeger, Wookiefoot, Big Bill Broonzy, Laura Veirs's "John Henry Lives," Josh White, Odetta, Johnny Cash (singing "The Legend of John Henry's Hammer") a nine minute version, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Fred McDowell, John Renbourn, John Fahey (who plays both an instrumental of the original song, and an instrumental of his own, "John Henry Variation"), Harry Belafonte, Roberta Flack, Dave Van Ronk, The Gun Club, Little Jimmy Dickens, Bill Wood, John Jacob Niles and the Drive-By Truckers (singing "The Day John Henry Died"). Matthew Sabatella did a John Henry song called "This Old Hammer". Several versions have become standards among bluegrass musicians. Specifically, John Henry Brown is the main character in the song "Walk on Boy" recorded by both Doc Watson and the Rice Brothers. Dave Dudley wrote his own variation called "John Henry". Northern Ireland band 'The Helfire Club' reference the plight of John Henry in their song 'Dead Man's Funk'. The Shane Daniel album "Yours Truly" contains a song called "The Spirit Of John Henry". Daniel says this song has to do with the name John Henry not being used in modern songs. The Supremes recorded a song in 1967 entitled "Treat Me Nice John Henry" which explains about a girl's love for John Henry growing and growing and begging for him to be nice to her. Tom T. Hall performed a song called "More About John Henry", which explored John Henry's personal life. During the 1990's, Atlanta based band Burnin' Pork Truck included "John Henry" in every performance. Most recently, Bruce Springsteen performs "John Henry" with a folk band on his 2006 album "". It was translated into Norwegian as "Jon Henry" in 1973 by Odd Børretzen. [cite web
url =
title = Odd Børretzen & Alf Cranner
publisher = This is Music From Norway
] Van Morrison recorded a rock version of the folk song on his 1998 album "The Philosopher's Stone". Henry Thomas also recorded a version of the song. Indie rock/Alt-country group released the song "John Henry Split My Heart" on their 2003 album "Magnolia Electric Co.", and fellow alt-country group Drive-By Truckers released the song "The Day John Henry Died" on their 2004 album "The Dirty South". The Smothers Brothers have also used the "John Henry" song as part of their folk satire routine. John Henry reappears as an avenging bogeyman figure in "John Henry Gonna" on Those Poor Bastards' 2007 album "Hellfire Hymns". Also, Canadian group "Cuff The Duke" have a hit song titled "The Ballad of Poor John Henry", while New York art-metal collective The Book Of Knots just released a song titled just "The Ballad of John Henry" on their new album, "Traineater". American composer Aaron Copland arranged the traditional "John Henry" for orchestra or chamber orchestra in 1940, a composition that appears on the soundtrack for the Spike Lee film "He Got Game" (1998), among other recordings. Jerry Lee Lewis recorded the song as well in 1960."Smokey And The Bandit" Opening theme says, "You've heard about the legend of Jesse James, and John Henry just to mention some names."With lyrics "...Thinking how happy John Henry was that he fell down and died," Gillian Welch, makes reference in album "Time (The Revelator)" song Elvis Presly Blues.
Jeffrey Foucault makes reference to several legends and folk heros including John Henry in the song "Secretariat" on the album "Miles From the Lightning".A British folk-punk band, The Cropdusters, from Hampshire, also recorded a song called "John Henry" in the 1980s. Buck 65 also makes reference to "the hammer that killed John Henry" in the song "Rough House Blues". There is also a southern metal band located in Wichita Falls, Texas called "John Henry vs. The Machine".


Melvin B. Tolson was played by Denzel Washington in 'The Great Debaters,' a film dealing with the struggles of coming of age and the beginnings of the civil rights movement. The film explores Tolson's role as a teacher at Wiley College. Later in life Tolson found success as a poet.

Disney film

In 2000, Walt Disney Feature Animation completed a short subject film based on John Henry, produced at the satellite studio in Orlando, Florida, directed by Mark Henn, written by Shirley Pierce and produced by Steven Keller. Keller, Henn and Pierce worked collaboratively with the Grammy Award winning group "Sounds of Blackness" to create all new songs for the film. The film also featured the voice talent of actress Alfre Woodard. "John Henry" created a strong positive response around the animation community, won several film festivals both domestically and abroad, and was one of seven finalists for the 2001 academy awards in its category. It also stars Tim Hodge, the future Big Idea Productions associate.

However, Disney was uneasy about releasing a short about a black folk hero created by an almost completely white production teamFact|date=July 2008, and aside from film festivals, industry screenings and limited theater screenings required for Academy Award consideration, a slightly cut down version of "John Henry" was released only as part of a video compilation entitled "Disney American Legends" in 2001. This became the nation's top-selling children's video for several weeks upon its release. Disney Educational Productions has also made the film available as a stand-alone product for video use in schools. The film is often shown on the Disney Channel, particularly during Black History Month.


*Henry is the subject of the 1931 Roark Bradford novel "John Henry", illustrated by noted woodcut artist J. J. Lankes. It was adopted into a stage musical in 1940, starring Paul Robeson in the title role.
* John Henry is the name of a mule, the only "friend" of the tall convict, in William Faulkner's "If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem"(1934).
* In 1994, They Might Be Giants released an album titled "John Henry".
* John Henry was a character in the 1995 Disney movie "Tall Tale", appearing alongside Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan.
* In 1996, the U.S. Post Office issued a John Henry 32 cent postage stamp.
* Colson Whitehead's 2001 novel "John Henry Days" uses the John Henry myth as story background.
* The story of John Henry was re-worked in a comic song by the songwriting duo The Smothers Brothers. In their version, John Henry takes on the steam hammer and is narrowly defeated, but ends saying 'I'm gonna get me a steam drill too!'
* Gillian Welch's song "Elvis Presley Blues", from the album "Time (The Revelator)" (2001), compares Elvis Presley's death to John Henry's. Her guitar lick echoes that of Mississippi John Hurt's take on John Henry, "Spike Driver Blues."
* A racehorse was named for him in the 1970s. John Henry the racehorse would live up to his namesake's image as an Iron Man, and at one time was the biggest money-earner in the history of thoroughbred racing, earning a total of over $6.5 million in a career that spanned from 1977 to 1984. Born in 1975, John Henry lived in retirement at the Kentucky Horse Park, in Lexington, Kentucky, until his death in 2007.
* The legend inspired Noel Ignatiev, author of "How the Irish Became White," to name his own son John Henry.
* Mark Knopfler's song "Song for Sonny Liston", from the album "Shangri-La" (2004), compares Sonny Liston's left jab to that of Henry's hammer.
* The legend of John Henry was the inspiration for the third version of the DC Comics superhero Steel -- also known as John Henry Irons.
* In the DC Comics mini-series "", a black man takes on the name John Henry while donning a black hood secured by a hangman's noose and produces a sledge hammer in an attempt to avenge his murdered family by the KKK. He kills quite a few Klansmen before being injured, while hiding in a barn he is discovered by a young white girl. He is then killed by the Klansmen. John Henry Irons is seen in the epilogue reading near John Henry's gravestone. This serves to further emotionally connect the hero Steel and his namesake to the Silver Age folk hero.
* John Henry's visage was used in the 2006 comic-book series "Hearts of Steel".
* Bart Simpson is forced to sing "John Henry Was a Steel Driving Man" in the "Homer's Odyssey" episode of "The Simpsons".
* In the 1990s movie Gettysburg a run-away slave from the south is referred to as "a John Henry."
* In the "Surf's Up" episode of "The Cosby Show", after Theo Huxtable damages an apartment, Theo's father, Cliff, finds himself blamed because Theo's actions were a recreation of events from a story which Cliff had told to Theo. Cliff defends himself by noting that he also once told Theo "the story of John Henry, who was a steel-drivin' man ... [Theo] didn't go out and drive any steel!"
* "The Onion", a satirical newspaper, ran a fictional story in its February 27, 2006 issue about a modern-day John Henry. That article [] , titled "Modern-Day John Henry Dies Trying to Out-Spreadsheet Excel 11.0", describes an accountant who tried to prepare a spreadsheet faster than the Microsoft program Excel. Much like the traditional John Henry, this protagonist won the contest but died afterward.
* In Julian Schnabel's 1996 film "Basquiat", Benny (played by Benicio del Toro) tells the story of John Henry to Jean-Michel Basquiat (Jeffrey Wright). At the end of the tale Basquiat replies, "But he beat it".
* The song is referenced in the 1991 film "The Indian Runner".
* The Arrogant Worms' song "Steel Drivin' Man" begins with the heroic introduction of John Henry, then immediately veers off to sing about "a man lazy as a thousand men."
* On February 24, 2007, in "Mr. Monk and the Really, Really Dead Guy", an episode of "Monk", Adrian Monk's psychiatrist Dr. Charles Kroger uses the story of John Henry versus the steam hammer while comparing Monk to technology, trying to cheer him up by saying that John Henry won, but then made it worse after saying that he died.
* Stop-motion animator George Pal made the 7-minute short "John Henry and the Inky-Poo" in 1946.
* John Henry appeared in an episode of "Saul of the Mole Men", where he was depicted as a steampunk cyborg portrayed by Tom Lister, Jr.
* "Toothpaste for Dinner" featured John Henry in a comic on May 11, 2005.
* One episode of the Nickelodeon series "Legends of the Hidden Temple" features John Henry's Lost Hammer as the episode's artifact.
* Lupe Fiasco's "Much More" off his underground mixtape album "Fahrenheit 1&15 Volume 2", he raps the following line... "Little Engine from the Hood, The Hustler in Me, Known to hit the track like John Henry".
* In an episode of "The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy", Grim tells Billy and Irwin the story of John Henry, with John Henry as Irwin, and Sperg driving the steam hammer. Grim apparently was betting on the steam engine to win, so he used his scythe to make the machine more powerful. John Henry was said to have tunneled so fast that he broke the laws of physics and was sucked into the 8th dimension.
* A serial bomber in the "Cold Case" episode "Sabotage" compares the John Henry story to the modern-day practice of Offshoring and Outsourcing. The bomber's job was replaced with less expensive foreign labor.
* In an episode of Nickelodeon "SpongeBob SquarePants" Patchy the Pirate (a live-action character) narrates a poem about a contest between fry-cook SpongeBob and a "Krabby Patty" making machine.
*In Richard Adams' book Watership Down, the character El-ahrairah is compared to John Henry: "What Robin Hood is to the English and John Henry is to the American Negroes, Elil-Hrair-Rah, or to rabbits."

ee also

* John Henryism
* John Henry Irons

Other Big Men

* Big Joe Mufferaw a.k.a. Joseph Montferrand of the Ottawa Valley
* Gargantua
* Paul Bunyan
* Pecos Bill
* Pier Gerlofs Donia
* Iron John of Michigan
* Johnny Kaw
* Mike Fink
* Joe Magarac
* Hiawatha
* Jack Magyar
* Fionn mac Cumhaill
* Venture Smith, the black Paul Bunyan
* Tom Hickathrift, an English folk hero and giant slayer
* Big Bad John
* Casey Jones
* Davy Crockett
* Jim Bowie


Further reading

* Johnson, Guy B. (1929) "John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend". Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press
* Chappell, Louis W. (1933) "John Henry; A Folk-Lore Study". Reprinted 1968. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press
* Keats, Ezra Jack (1965) "John Henry, An American Legend". New York: Pantheon Books.
* Williams, Brett (1983) "John Henry: A Bio-Bibliography by Brett Williams." Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press
* Nelson, Scott. (Summer 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" Vol. 2. No. 2, pp. 53-79.
* Nelson, Scott (2006) "Steel Drivin' Man". Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0195300109
* Garst, John (November 27, 2006) " [ On the Trail of the Real John Henry] ". "History News Network". (includes rebuttal by Scott Nelson)

External links

* [ John Henry - The Steel Driving Man] Includes a page with the updated abstract of Garst (2002) above.
* [ John Henry, Present at the Creation]
* [ John Henry Statue at]
* [ Folklore Researcher Places Legendary John Henry in Alabama]
* [ "Onion" parody]
* [ Three Rivers Travel Council - John Henry Information] The Legend of John Henry Information

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