John Henry (folklore)

From Academic Kids

"John Henry was a steel driving man."

An American folk hero, John Henry has been the subject of numerous songs, stories, plays and novels. Like other "Big Men" (Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, Iron John), John Henry was a mythic representation of a particular group within the melting pot of the 19th century working class. In the most popular story of his life, Henry is born into the world big, mean and strong as ten men. He grows to be one of the greatest "steel-drivers" in the mid-century push to extend the railroads across the mountains to the west. The complication of the story is that, in order to save money, the owner of the railroad buys a steam-powered hammer to do the work of his mostly black driving crew. In a bid to save his job, and the jobs of his men, John Henry challenges the inventor to a contest: John Henry VS. the Steam-Hammer. John defeats the Steam-Hammer in driving spikes, but in the process he suffers a heart attack and dies a martyr. In modern depictions John Henry is usually portrayed as hammering down rail spikes, but older songs often instead refer to him driving blasting holes into rock, part of the process of excavating railroad tunnels.

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-hammer too!'

The truth about John Henry is hidden from us, but legend has it that he was a slave born in Alabama 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 took place.

While he may or may not be a real character, Henry became an important symbol of the working man. Particularly important was his rejection of the classic "work ethic" so popular in the 19th century (and even today). The basic claim of the legend is that, even if you are the greatest worker that ever lived, management remains uninterested in your health and well-being. They worked John Henry to death, and then replaced his men with a machine anyway. Because of this message, the legend of John Henry has been a staple of leftist politics, labor organizing and American counter-culture for well over one hundred years.

In 2000, Walt Disney Feature Animation completed a short subject based on John Henry, produced at the satellite studio in Orlando, Florida and directed by Mark Henn. However, Disney was uneasy about releasing a shot about a Black folk hero created by an almost completely white production team, and John Henry was only released as part of a video compilation of Disney Tall Tales in 2001.

The legend of John Henry was a strong influence on the DC Comics superhero Steel.

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