John Henry is an American folk hero. An African American freedman, he is said to have worked as a "steel-driving man"—a man tasked with hammering a steel drill into rock to make holes for explosives to blast the rock in constructing a railroad tunnel.

John Henry
Statue of John Henry outside the town of Talcott in Summers County, West Virginia
Born1840s or 1850s
Known forAmerican folk hero

The story of John Henry is told in a classic blues folk song about his duel against a drilling machine, which exists in many versions, and has been the subject of numerous stories, plays, books, and novels.[1][2]

Legend Edit

Plaque celebrating the legend of John Henry (Talcott, West Virginia)

According to legend, John Henry's prowess as a steel driver was measured in a race against a steam-powered rock drilling machine, a race that he won only to die in victory with a hammer in hand as his heart gave out from stress. Various locations, including Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia,[3] Lewis Tunnel in Virginia, and Coosa Mountain Tunnel in Alabama, have been suggested as the site of the contest.

The contest involved John Henry as the hammerman working in partnership with a shaker, who would hold a chisel-like drill against mountain rock, while the hammerman struck a blow with a hammer. Then the shaker would begin rocking and rolling: wiggling and rotating the drill to optimize its bite. The steam drill machine could drill but it could not shake the chippings away, so its bit could not drill further and frequently broke down.

History Edit

The historical accuracy of many of the aspects of the John Henry legend are subject to debate.[1][2] According to researcher Scott Reynolds Nelson, the actual John Henry was born in 1848 in New Jersey and died of silicosis and not due to exhaustion of work.[4]

Several locations have been put forth for the tunnel on which John Henry died.

Big Bend Tunnel Edit

Sociologist Guy B. Johnson investigated the legend of John Henry in the late 1920s. He concluded that John Henry might have worked on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway's (C&O Railway) Big Bend Tunnel but that "one can make out a case either for or against" it.[5][3] That tunnel was built near Talcott, West Virginia, from 1870 to 1872 (according to Johnson's dating), and named for the big bend in the Greenbrier River nearby.

Some versions of the song refer to the location of John Henry's death as "The Big Bend Tunnel on the C. & O."[3] In 1927, Johnson visited the area and found one man who said he had seen it.

This man, known as Neal Miller, told me in plain words how he had come to the tunnel with his father at 17, how he carried water and drills for the steel drivers, how he saw John Henry every day, and, finally, all about the contest between John Henry and the steam drill.

"When the agent for the steam drill company brought the drill here," said Mr. Miller, "John Henry wanted to drive against it. He took a lot of pride in his work and he hated to see a machine take the work of men like him.

"Well, they decided to hold a test to get an idea of how practical the steam drill was. The test went on all day and part of the next day.

"John Henry won. He wouldn't rest enough, and he overdid. He took sick and died soon after that."

Mr. Miller described the steam drill in detail. I made a sketch of it and later when I looked up pictures of the early steam drills, I found his description correct. I asked people about Mr. Miller's reputation, and they all said, "If Neal Miller said anything happened, it happened."[6]

When Johnson contacted Chief Engineer C. W. Johns of the C&O Railroad regarding Big Bend Tunnel, Johns replied that "no steam drills were ever used in this tunnel." When asked about documentation from the period, Johns replied that "all such papers have been destroyed by fire."[5]

Talcott holds a yearly festival named for Henry, and a statue and memorial plaque have been placed in John Henry Historical Park at the eastern end of the tunnel.[7]

Lewis Tunnel Edit

In the 2006 book Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend, historian Scott Reynolds Nelson detailed his discovering documentation of a 19-year-old African-American man alternately referred to as John Henry, John W. Henry, or John William Henry in previously unexplored prison records of the Virginia Penitentiary. At the time, penitentiary inmates were hired out as laborers to various contractors, and this John Henry was notated as having headed the first group of prisoners to be assigned tunnel work. Nelson also discovered the C&O's tunneling records, which the company believed had been destroyed by fire. Henry, like many African Americans, might have come to Virginia to work on the clean-up of the battlefields after the Civil War. Arrested and tried for burglary, John Henry was in the first group of convicts released by the warden to work as leased labor on the C&O Railway.[8]: 39 

According to Nelson, objectionable conditions at the Virginia prison led the warden to believe that the prisoners, many of whom had been arrested on trivial charges, would be better clothed and fed if they were released as laborers to private contractors. (He subsequently changed his mind about this and became an opponent of the convict labor system.) In the C&O's tunneling records, Nelson found no evidence of a steam drill used in Big Bend Tunnel.[9]

The records Nelson found indicate that the contest took place 40 miles (64 km) away at the Lewis Tunnel, between Talcott and Millboro, Virginia, where prisoners did indeed work beside steam drills night and day.[10] Nelson also argues that the verses of the ballad about John Henry being buried near "the white house," "in the sand," somewhere that locomotives roar, mean that Henry's body was buried in a ditch behind the so-called white house of the Virginia State Penitentiary, which photos from that time indicate was painted white, and where numerous unmarked graves have been found.[11]

Prison records for John William Henry stopped in 1873, suggesting that he was kept on the record books until it was clear that he was not coming back and had died. Nelson stresses that John Henry would have been representative of the many hundreds of convict laborers who were killed in unknown circumstances tunneling through the mountains or who died shortly afterwards of silicosis from dust created by the drills and blasting.

In other media Edit

The tale of John Henry has been used as a symbol in many cultural movements, including labor movements[12] and the Civil Rights Movement.[13]

John Henry is a symbol of physical strength and endurance, of exploited labor, of the dignity of a human being against the degradations of the machine age, and of racial pride and solidarity. During World War II his image was used in U.S. government propaganda as a symbol of social tolerance and diversity.[14]

Film Edit

  • In 1995, John Henry was portrayed in the movie Tall Tale by Roger Aaron Brown. A former slave, John Henry appears to a runaway farmer's son named Daniel to both protect him from ruffians (alongside fellow folk hero figures Daniel's father told his son about, Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan) and impart life lesson wisdom to him.
  • In the 1996 film Basquiat, the story of John Henry was told to Basquiat by his friend Benny as words of wisdom.
  • In 2020, Terry Crews played a modern-day adaptation of the character in John Henry. The plot centers around a former gang member who takes in two young teens who are on the run from the leader of his past. The film was released by Saban Films.[17]

Animation Edit

  • In 1946, animator George Pal adapted the tale of John Henry into a short film titled John Henry and the Inky-Poo as part of his theatrical stop-motion Puppetoons series. The short is considered a milestone in American cinema as one of the first films to have a positive view of African-American folklore.[18][19]
  • In 1974, Nick Bosustow and David Adams co-produced an 11-minute animated short, The Legend of John Henry, for Paramount Pictures.[20]
  • In the Transformers: Rescue Bots episode "The Other Doctor", Cody Burns recounts the story of John Henry to the Rescue Bots to raise their spirits when they are facing a similar dilemma of being replaced by Doctor Morocco's Morbots. He initially leaves out the ending, worrying it will discourage them, until Boulder later reads the story and discovers the truth.[22]
  • The 88th episode of season 5 of SpongeBob SquarePants, titled "SpongeBob vs. The Patty Gadget", is a reference to the story of John Henry. It features SpongeBob competing against a machine called the Patty Gadget in an attempt to keep his job at the Krusty Krab.
  • The third episode of The Simpsons titled Homer’s Odyssey has Bart sing “John Henry was a Steel Driving Man” in front of the class as punishment.
  • John Henry appears in a segment of the short lived Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventures  TV series. In an episode titled "Pocket Watch Full of Miracles", which aired in November of 1990, John Henry is portrayed as having the mannerisms of Muhammad Ali. John Henry challenges and beats a steam powered hammer driven by his boss. His prize is an antique pocket watch owned by Queen Victoria. The watch is given to the titular Bill and Ted only to be immediately destroyed by a runaway train.

Television Edit

  • John Henry was mentioned in the season 7 premiere of Cheers.
  • The story of John Henry was prominently featured in a 2008 episode of the CBS crime drama, Cold Case.
  • In season 2 of the Smart Guy episode "TJ versus the Machine", Floyd and TJ mentioned John Henry and his victory over the steam drill.
  • John Henry is also referenced in episode 4 of season 6 of the television show How I Met Your Mother, his legend briefly told through Marshall's song.
  • In the season 3 finale, "Kimmy Bites an Onion!", of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt a version of The "Ballad of John Henry" is played with lyrics surmising the fight between Kimmy and a robot to become a crossing-guard. Like the legend, Kimmy gives her all to beat the robot and in doing so, effectively sacrifices her life.
  • In The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy season 7 episode "Short Tall Tales" shows a parody of John Henry's tale with Irwin in the role. Grim decides to sabotage the story by powering-up the drilling machine to go faster, and Irwin forces himself to hammer through the mountain faster to surpass it, but by doing so he ends up breaking into the 8th dimension, where aliens feed him to one of their giant monstrous females.
  • In the Gravity Falls season 2 episode "The Golf War", an anthropomorphic golf ball named "Big Henry" undertakes the task of pushing a golf ball through a cave which has experienced a gas leak, as the only person who is strong enough to perform such a task. Once he reaches the other side and delivers the ball to its destination, he collapses due to gas inhalation.

Radio Edit

Destination Freedom, a 1950's American old time radio series, featured John Henry in a July 1949 episode.[24]

Music Edit

The story of John Henry is traditionally told through two types of songs: ballads, commonly called "The Ballad of John Henry", and "hammer songs" (a type of work song), each with wide-ranging and varying lyrics.[2][25] Some songs, and some early folk historian research, conflate the songs about John Henry with those of John Hardy, a West Virginian outlaw.[25] Ballads about John Henry's life typically contain four major components: a premonition by John Henry as a child that steel-driving would lead to his death, the lead-up to and the results of the legendary race against the steam hammer, Henry's death and burial, and the reaction of his wife.[25]

The well-known narrative ballad of "John Henry" is usually sung in an upbeat tempo. Hammer songs associated with the "John Henry" ballad, however, are not. Sung more slowly and deliberately, often with a pulsating beat suggestive of swinging the hammer, these songs usually contain the lines "This old hammer killed John Henry / but it won't kill me." Nelson explains that:

... workers managed their labor by setting a "stint," or pace, for it. Men who violated the stint were shunned ... Here was a song that told you what happened to men who worked too fast: they died ugly deaths; their entrails fell on the ground. You sang the song slowly, you worked slowly, you guarded your life, or you died.[8]: 32 

There is some controversy among scholars over which came first, the ballad or the hammer songs. Some scholars have suggested that the "John Henry" ballad grew out of the hammer songs, while others believe that the two were always entirely separate.

Songs featuring the story of John Henry have been recorded by many musical artists and bands of different ethnic backgrounds. These include:

"Gonna Die With My Hammer in My Hand," recorded in 1927 and compiled in the Anthology of American Folk Music (1952)[26]
McDowell’s version is included on the ‘’Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969: Vols 1&2’’ 2019 release.[27]
"Big Man- The Legend of John Henry" starring Joe Williams, Randy Crawford and Robert Guillaume, released 1975 on Fantasy Records F-79006 [r18596284]
"John Henry and the Steam Drill" and "Natural Man", both on Land of Giants (1964)[29]


The story also inspired the Aaron Copland's orchestral composition "John Henry" (1940, revised 1952), the 1994 chamber music piece Come Down Heavy by Evan Chambers and the 2009 chamber music piece Steel Hammer by the composer Julia Wolfe.[49][50]

They Might Be Giants named their fifth studio album after John Henry.

The American cowpunk band Nine Pound Hammer is named after the traditional description of the hammer John Henry wielded.

Bengalee singer-songwriter and musician Hemanga Biswas (1912–1987), considered to be as the Father of the Indian People's Theater Association Movement in Assam inspired by ’John Henry’, the American ballad translated the song in Bengali as well as the Assamese language and also composed its music for which he was well recognized among the masses.[51][52] Bangladeshi mass singer Fakir Alamgir later covered Biswas' version of the song.[53][54]

Literature Edit

  • Henry is the subject of the 1931 Roark Bradford novel John Henry, illustrated by noted woodcut artist J. J. Lankes. The novel was adapted into a stage musical in 1940, starring Paul Robeson in the title role.[2] According to Steven Carl Tracy, Bradford's works were influential in broadly popularizing the John Henry legend beyond railroad and mining communities and outside of African American oral histories.[2]
  • In a 1933 article published in The Journal of Negro Education, Bradford's John Henry was criticized for "making over a folk-hero into a clown."[55] A 1948 obituary for Bradford described John Henry as "a better piece of native folklore than Paul Bunyan."[56]
  • Colson Whitehead's 2001 novel John Henry Days uses the John Henry myth as story background. Whitehead fictionalized the John Henry Days festival in Talcott, West Virginia and the release of the John Henry postage stamp in 1996.[57]
  • In his nonfiction account Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend (Oxford University Press 2008), historian Scott Reynolds Nelson attempts to find the real man behind the legend, with a particular focus on Reconstruction-era Virginia and the use of prison labor for building railroads.
  • The textbook titled American Music: A Panorama by Daniel Kingman displays the lyrics of the ballad titled "John Henry", explores its style and relates the history of the hero. That's in Chapter 2: The African–American Tradition.
  • Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame M’balia is a juvenile fantasy novel about seventh grader Tristan Strong who travels to another world, Alke, and encounters black African and African-American gods. These include Br'er Rabbit, Anansi, and John Henry. John Henry is a protector and defender of the inhabitants of Alke against ‘haints’ and monsters. In the second novel of the trilogy, John Henry is nearly defeated by his own hammer, wielded by a spirit gone mad with grief.
  • John Henry the Revelator[59] by Constantine von Hoffman is a magical realist novel, in which a teenage boy in 1930s Alabama, Moses Crawford, acquires superpowers and helps challenge the nation's white power structure. The black community calls Crawford John Henry, after the folk hero, because no one is aware of his true identity.
  • He appears as a character in Peter Clines' novel Paradox Bound.

United States postage stamp Edit

In 1996, the US Postal Service issued a John Henry postage stamp. It was part of a set honoring American folk heroes that included Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill and Casey at the Bat.[60]

Video games Edit

  • John Henry was featured as a fictional character in the 2014 video game Wasteland 2. The story is referenced by various NPCs throughout the game and is also available in full as a series of in game books which tell the story of the competition between John Henry and a contingent of robotic workers.[61]
  • In Civilization IV, the quote "Before that steam drill shall beat me down, I'll die with my hammer in my hand." appears when steel is researched.[63]
  • The Big Bend Tunnel is a location of the multiplayer videogame Fallout 76, set in Appalachia region. The story surrounding the Miner Miracles quest is a reference to John Henry's competition.

See also Edit

References Edit

  1. ^ a b Stephen Wade (2 September 2002). "John Henry, Present at the Creation". NPR. Archived from the original on 12 July 2012.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Tracy, Steven C.; Bradford, Roark (2011). John Henry: Roark Bradford's Novel and Play. Oxford University Press, US. ISBN 978-0199766505.
  3. ^ a b c Giles Oakley (1997). The Devil's Music. Da Capo Press. p. 38. ISBN 978-0306807435.
  4. ^ Grimes, William (2006-10-18). "Taking Swings at a Myth, With John Henry the Man (Published 2006)". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2021-02-08.
  5. ^ a b Johnson, Guy B. (1929). John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend. Chapel Hill: UNC Press. pp. 44–49.
  6. ^ Johnson, Guy (2 February 1930). "First Hero of Negro Folk Lore". Modesto Bee and News-Herald. p. 22. Retrieved 5 September 2014 – via  
  7. ^ "Park Map". John Henry Historical Park. Retrieved June 12, 2023.
  8. ^ a b Nelson, Scott Reynolds (2006). Steel drivin' man: John Henry, the untold story of an American legend. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0195300109.
  9. ^ Grimes, William. "Taking Swings at a Myth, With John Henry the Man", The New York Times, Books section, 18 October 2006.
  10. ^ Downes, Lawrence. "John Henry Days", The New York Times, Books section, 18 April 2008.
  11. ^ "John Henry – The Story – Lewis Tunnel". 13 July 2006. Retrieved 20 July 2010.
  12. ^ Singer A (Winter 1997). "Using Songs to Teach Labor History". OAH Magazine of History. 11 (2): 13–16. doi:10.1093/maghis/11.2.13. JSTOR 25163131.
  13. ^ a b Nikola-Lisa W (Spring 1998). "John Henry: Then and Now". African American Review. 32 (1): 51–56. doi:10.2307/3042267. JSTOR 3042267.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g Bicknell J (Spring 2009). "Reflections on "John Henry": Ethical Issues in Singing Performance" (PDF). The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 67 (2): 173–180. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6245.2009.01346.x.
  15. ^ Kroll, Justin (October 9, 2018). "Dwayne Johnson to Star in Netflix's 'John Henry and the Statesmen'". Variety. Retrieved January 12, 2022.
  16. ^ Meyer, Joshua (November 5, 2021). "Dwayne Johnson's John Henry Movie, Which Released A Trailer Three Years Ago, Is 'Still Totally Happening' [Exclusive]". Slash Film. Retrieved January 12, 2022.
  17. ^ "John Henry: Official Trailer". YouTube. Archived from the original on 2021-11-11.
  18. ^ Shadow and Act (20 April 2017). "Have You Seen 'John Henry and the Inky-Poo'? ("1st Hollywood Film to Feature African American Folklore in a Positive Light")". Shadow and Act. Shadow & Act. Retrieved 22 May 2019.
  19. ^ Lehman, Christopher (7 January 2019). "The George Pal Puppetoons and Jasper – Part 4". Cartoon Research. Jerry Beck. Retrieved 22 May 2019.
  20. ^ Lenburg, Jeff (2006). Who's Who in Animated Cartoons: An International Guide to Film and Television's Award-Winning and Legendary Animators. New York: Applause Books. ISBN 978-1557836717.
  21. ^ Hill, Jim (22 February 2001). "A black hero comes up short". Orlando Weekly. Retrieved 3 November 2015.
  22. ^ Pontac, Ken; Graff, Warren (May 19, 2012). "The Other Doctor". Transformers: Rescue Bots. Season 1. Episode 12. Event occurs at 10:43. Discovery Family.
  23. ^ Saul of the Mole Men: 'A Hammer in His Hand', IGN, 9 April 2007, retrieved 2021-08-01
  24. ^ ""The Legend of John Henry"". Archived from the original on 2022-11-12. Retrieved 2022-11-12.
  25. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Cohen, Norm (2000). Long steel rail: the railroad in American folksong. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0252068812.
  26. ^ Haddox, John Christopher. "The Williamson Brothers and Curry". West Virginia University. Retrieved 11 June 2023.
  27. ^ Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969: Vols 1&2, Third Man Records, Americana Music Productions, Inc. 2019
  28. ^ "Josh White- John Henry | For Old Times Sake". 2008-01-07. Archived from the original on 2015-11-18. Retrieved 2015-10-07.
  29. ^ "The New Christy Minstrels – Land of Giants Album Reviews, Songs & More | AllMusic". AllMusic.
  30. ^ "The Legend of John Henry's Hammer" and "Nine Pound Hammer", both on Blood, Sweat and Tears; Cash also recorded a shorter version of the former as "John Henry" with a different account of the legend for Destination Victoria Station
  31. ^ Merle Travis – John Henry, Composed by Traditional at AllMusic. Retrieved 18 September 2015.
  32. ^ Harry Belafonte – John Henry at AllMusic. Retrieved 18 September 2015.
  33. ^ Mississippi John Hurt – Folk Songs And Blues at Discogs (list of releases)
  34. ^ Giles Oakley (1997). The Devil's Music. Da Capo Press. p. 39. ISBN 978-0306807435.
  35. ^ Flipside of "Rock Island Line"
  36. ^ album Long Time Gone 1979
  37. ^ "Songs: Ohia – John Henry Split My Heart Lyrics". SongMeanings.
  38. ^ Album: Rescattermastered – 2016
  39. ^ Song: John Henry – Album: Waiting For The Day – 1997
  40. ^ "Nine Pound Hammer" on the 1968 LP The Voice of the Turtle
  41. ^ "They Killed John Henry" on his 2009 album, Midnight at the Movies
  42. ^ "Cécile McLorin Salvant – John Henry".
  43. ^ "Those Poor Bastards – John Henry Gonna" – via
  44. ^ "When I Get My New House Done Western North Carolina Fiddle Tunes and Songs" – via
  45. ^ "G. B. Grayson – Henry Whitter – The Nine-Pound Hammer / Short Life Of Trouble". 16 August 1929.
  46. ^ "John Henry" on his 2017 album "Folksinger Vol. 2"
  47. ^ "John Henry" on their 2003 album "House Band Feud"
  48. ^ "Spotify". Spotify.
  49. ^ Kozinn, Allan (22 November 2009). "The John Henry Who Might Have Been". The New York Times. Retrieved 28 September 2015.
  50. ^ Reinthaler, Joan (23 November 2009). "Review: Bang on a Can All-Stars and Trio Mediaeval Perform 'Steel Hammer'". The Washington Post. Retrieved 28 September 2015.
  51. ^ John Henry Hemanga Biswas, archived from the original on 2021-11-11, retrieved 2020-05-15
  52. ^ Hujuri, Raktima (15 July 2015). "Shodhganga : a reservoir of Indian theses @ INFLIBNET". hdl:10603/45142. Retrieved 15 May 2020.
  53. ^ "Fakir Alamgir performs live on RTV". 26 February 2010.
  54. ^ "Fakir Alamgir holds sway". 5 May 2013.
  55. ^ Sterling A. Brown. "Negro Character as Seen by White Authors", The Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Apr., 1933), pp. 179–203
  56. ^ "Bradford was one of Immortals", Robert C. Ruark, The Evening Independent, 22 November 1948
  57. ^ "Freeloading Man", Jonathan Franzen, New York Times, 13 May 2001
  58. ^ Action Comics #4 (February 2012)
  59. ^ "John Henry the Revelator", Constantine von Hoffman, Kirkus Reviews 18 March 2022
  60. ^ Associated Press (July 24, 1996). "NEW STAMPS TELL TALL TALES OF FOLK HEROES". Archived from the original on October 21, 2013.
  61. ^ "The Story of John Henry – Official Wasteland 3 Wiki". Retrieved 24 May 2017.
  62. ^ "Non-playable characters – BLU Team (original)". Retrieved 30 July 2017.
  63. ^ "Tech Quotes from Civilization IV – Industrial Era Technologies". Levelskip. Retrieved 21 January 2019.

Further reading Edit

  • 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, NY: 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. "Who Was John Henry? Railroad Construction, Southern Folklore, and the Birth of Rock and Roll", Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas Summer 2005 2(2): 53–80; doi:10.1215/15476715-2-2-53
  • Garst, John F. (2022). John Henry and His People: The Historical Origin and Lore of America's Great Folk Ballad. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company.

External links Edit