Gabriel Brown (left), who performed blues variations on "John Henry" on guitar for Alan Lomax, Zora Neale Hurston, and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle in Eatonville, Florida, 1935. Pictured performing with Rochelle French. Photo by Alan Lomax. Prints and Photographs Division, LOT 7414-C, no. N91.
Several versions of the ballad "John Henry" may be found in the collections of the American Folklife Center. The recordings available online include Arthur Bell singng the song while beating time as if hammering and Harold Hazelhurst singing "John Henry" as a work song for driving railroad spikes. The song probably originated as a work song, like these versions, for work involving the use of a hammer. Joe Brown sings the song as a blues ballad accompanied on guitar, with more verses than in the work song versions; and Gabriel Brown sings only one verse and uses the tune as the basis for blues improvisation on guitar. The legend of John Henry is also told as a narrative, and references to the legend occur in other songs. An example is the work song "Take This Hammer," performed by Joe Brown and a group of convicts at Raiford Penitentiary, Florida (recorded by John and Ruby Lomax in 1939). This song includes a verse with the lines "Must be the hammer, the hammer that killed John Henry. But it won't kill me. No, it won't kill me."
The legend, told both as a narrative and as a ballad, concerns "steel driving," or drilling, that is, using a hammer and steel chisel to make dynamite holes to clear rock in the construction of a railroad tunnel, and a contest between one of the fastest and strongest workers, John Henry, and a steam-powered drilling machine. John Henry wins, but dies in the effort. In most versions his wife is called to his side as he dies. In some versions he is buried near "the White House," and this is seen as a clue to the original events by some historians. There are also oral histories of people who claimed to have known John Henry collected by Guy B. Johnson and Louis Chappell in the 1920s, but these accounts differ as to the location of the events, how they transpired, and whether Henry died of exhaustion or survived the contest and died later in an explosion. In most of these accounts he was described as African American, either a freed slave working for pay or a prisoner working on a chain gang.
The locations given for the events of the ballad vary, but most link it to the introduction of steam-drills during the construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, which would have been in the 1870s or early 1880s. The railroad construction connected towns and created them, as it made it easier to move coal from Ohio and Pennsylvania to eastern ports, and to improve transportation of goods across the eastern states. Extension lines were built to the western frontier and to the south that later became parts of other railroad companies, so the timing of the legend is important in determining where the events of the ballad may have taken place.
Many historians have tried to find an historical John Henry, but who he was and where the events may have taken place remain topics of fierce debate. In John Henry, a Folk Lore Study (1933), Louis Chappell placed the scene of the events during the construction of the Big Bend Tunnel, in Talcott, West Virginia, in 1870-1872, and this is one of the locations that has been popularly accepted. But Chappell's reasons for placing the events at this location are considered weak by some historians, especially as the digging of this tunnel did not require steam-powered drills. John Garst returned to the first-person accounts of the events collected by Chappell and Johnson, looked at versions of the ballad, considered a local legend of John Henry near Leeds, Alabama, located a freed slave who may have been John Henry, and concluded that the construction of the Coosa Mountain Tunnel or the Oak Mountain Tunnel, both near Leeds, was the likely scene of his death in about 1882. At the time, the railroad construction was part of a southern extension of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. Scott Reynolds Nelson, in Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend (2006), searched for prisoners called John Henry, found one who worked on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, and selected the Lewis Tunnel in Virginia, completed in 1873, as a more likely site, as steam-powered drills are known to have been used there along side men doing the same job.
Whether or not the legend has an historical basis, the story of a man whose worth and identity are measured only by his strength, which is then challenged by the advent of steam power, is one that has endured for over a century. John Henry's complaint to the work "captain," "A man ain't nothing but a man," found in most versions of the ballad, reminds us of the lives of countless nameless people who helped to build America by the work of their hands, many of whom died in the effort.References
- Chappell, Louis W. John Henry: A Folk-Lore Study, Kennikat Press, 1933.
- Garst, John F. "Evidence for John Henry in Alabama," Lecture presented at the John Henry Day Celebration in Leeds, Alabama, 2007.
- Johnson, Guy B. John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend, University of North Carolina Press, 1929.
- Nelson, Scott Reynolds. Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend. Oxford University Press, 2006.