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Songs of Yesterday: The Legend of John Henry, Steel-Driving Man, Part 2

John Henry, the legendary steel-driving railroad construction worker, has been immortalized in song, sung by performers in almost every known music genre. Here we examine some of the lyrics that have endured over a century of singing and re-singing as well as some of the underlying messages of those words.


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Editor Note: Hear the author perform John Henry. To order the complete CD, see Songs of Appalachian Ancestors.

Last month, in "The Legend of John Henry, Part 1", we began the exploration into who was John Henry, the subject of a folk song as old as the hills (well, as old as the railroad that runs through the hills). Here we will look at some of the versions of the song and consider why it has remained in American folklore.

The morals or taglines for this story are almost as numerous as the versions of the song. It could be considered a protest song: the work crews were mostly made up of freed slaves who no longer had to answer to a plantation owner but, in order to keep their jobs, were still shackled by the work they had to do for the boss or "captain." Conditions were deplorable, so the tasks were still reminiscent of the slave era: we may change the labels, but some things never change. The tunnels were dark or dimly lit, men worked in close quarters surrounded by dust thick enough to chew. Breathing was so difficult, and cave-ins so common, that the task of getting through Big Bend Mountain took 1,000 men, of which hundreds lost their lives, and three years to complete (Hempel).

Folklorist Louis Chappell, who made an extensive study of the man and the legend, reminds us that there is an underlying theme of sexuality in the symbols of the mountain tunnel, the half-naked men, the symbol of the hammer, and the task of the shaker or turner, who held the "drill," which he straddled and turned as the steel driver (hopefully aiming accurately) would swing the hammer and hit with as much force as he could muster. The job was dangerous and the men joked about their abilities to "swing the hammer." And, in the end, when John Henry dies, additional verses tell of the many women who came to pay their respects, emphasizing that he had a certain reputation among the ladies. Then, when others sang about John Henry they would boast that "this hammer killed John Henry, but it can't kill me, no, it can't kill me" (Lomax, pp. 551-552). But it is hard to compete with a legend, especially one that is dead.

Composer Earl Robinson acknowledges the sexual innuendoes of the song, but also states that the piece is a well-crafted set of lyrics and that the subject of the song is "a great folk giant" (Okun, p. 77). No doubt this assessment is due, in part, to the message behind the music and lyric – the reason most people include the song in their repertoires. Out of curiosity, I decided to check on the different artists who have recorded this song (some of which are listed towards the end of this piece) and was amazed at the variety of genres into which this legend fits.

Perhaps the proper interpretation of the message is that the steam drill, the invention of a white man, was no match for the strength, power, and endurance of the black man (Dorson, p. 182). Yet another possible "moral" for the story, from this writer's vantage point, might be simply that, while automation and machines may do the work, and perhaps as well or better (over time; after all, the steam drill never died and could continue its work long after John Henry had expired), there is still no replacement for human beings. Yet another, more general, moral of the legend is that "Americans aren't quitters" (Marcatante, p. 141). As mentioned last month, there is one theory that the song was allegedly created by prisoners with the underlying message being "this work will kill you" (Cala).

Let us look at some of the many variations in the lyrics of this song. Virtually every version I looked at starts or includes the destiny of John Henry, determined when he was "a little bitty baby," as young as "three days old" in one version (Blood-Patterson, p. 146). Another states that he was "sitting on his papa's knee" when he declared "the Big Bend Tunnel on the C & O Railroad, is gonna be the death of me" (Axton). Another version says that he "picked up a hammer and little piece of steel, and said this ‘hammer's gonna be the death of me'" (Silber, p. 123).

With his destiny determined, most versions skip his entire youth and move to the mountain work activities where the captain overseas the men. One version has the captain proposing the race in the second verse of the song, with John Henry responding that "a man ain't nothing but a man," yet he declares that he won't let the steam drill beat him (he accepts the challenge) and then he informs the shaker (the man who will hold the "drill" while John Henry swings thirty pounds of hammer towards it, and the shaker's hand) (Okun, p. 79). In a longer version of this particular rendition, Henry suggests to his shaker that the drill-holder would be wise to pray because, should he miss his mark, "tomorrow be your buryin' day" (Blood-Patterson, p. 146).

One version of the song, and the only one I have found that is both short (only four verses) and non-specific about the focus – the race with the steam drill – mentions Henry's fondness for alcohol. The title is "John Henry-II," implying that it may be a piece that was composed later (Lomax, p. 562). Another version (titled "John Henry-I") found in that same book, begins with John Henry's association with females, implying that without her "John Henry," his lady would be without any comforts of life. Sandwiched between the discussion of his lady friends is his tunneling experience. That particular version lists three distinctly separate women in his life (pp. 560-561), quite contrary to any of the research discussed in the previous article on this topic.

John Henry's involvement with at least one woman is mentioned in almost every version I have examined. Some women are identified by name (specifically "Polly Ann" [Blood-Patterson, p. 146] and "Sally Ann" [Axton]); these mention how, when John Henry was sick (possibly from the steam drill race, but not really clarified), Polly (or Sally, according the version) "drove steel like a man" (Silber, p. 123; Axton). Some versions skip the references to a woman (Okun, p. 79), but from her inclusion in the longer examples of the song, it is clear that she was (or they were) an integral part of his life. Some of the women are identified by dress color (blue [Lomax, p. 561] or red [p. 562; Axton], specifically); most references to women include them mourning when John Henry died.

Some versions of the song include a reference to his having a child – a little baby "you could hold . . . in the palm of your hand" – who declared that his father was "a steel-driving man" (Silber, p. 123; Blood-Patterson, p. 146); truly a chip off the old block (learning to speak and discuss steel-driving at such a young age). Of course, the end of the story includes John Henry's death; the reasons: "he worked so hard, it broke his poor heart" (Okun, p. 79) and "he hammered his fool self to death" (Lomax, p. 561). Most versions have a tag verse (some have many tag verses, discussing the ladies, the disposition of the body, and the aftermath). His body was taken to "the graveyard" (Blood-Patterson, p. 146) and "to the tunnel" where he was "buried . . . in the sand" (Lomax, p. 561). In the former example, it states that those in the locomotives that go by mention his burial location; in the latter, it states that the women who pass down the road remember him as their "steel-drivin' man."

How popular is the song "John Henry"? Well, let's look at the people who have recorded this traditional epic: folk and blues notables such as Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Odetta, Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Merle Travis, and Mississippi John Hurt, among others; bluegrass and country/western performers such as Doc Watson, Bill Monroe, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Hoyt Axton, and Tom T. Hall; and popular and rock musicians such as Van Morrison, the Supremes (an altered version), and Bruce Springsteen. Even Aaron Copeland created a variation of it in 1940 and it has been featured in a large variety of television programs and movies (Wikipedia).

In 1999, director Frank Darabout released a movie based on the Stephen King novel, The Green Mile. This story focuses on a prison guard and one of his charges on death row (AKA, "the green mile"). The prisoner is a large black man who is obviously strong and powerful; he has another asset: power to revitalize the ill and, it is presumed, raise the dead. At least one reviewer has noticed the correlations between John Coffey of the King novel and John Henry of American folklore. Each is larger than the average man, of the African American race, and has superhuman powers that can both destroy and create (for Henry: destroy rocks and create smooth surfaces for railroad construction; for Coffey: destroy his enemies and create wellness where only sickness had been present) (Gena). Note: one major difference between the two is that John Henry was, according to song lyrics, quite the womanizer; John Coffey was anything but. However, still one might ask: did Stephen King with the novel and/or Frank Darabout with the screenplay recognize the similarities and perhaps even pattern John Coffey after John Henry? Is it possible that The Green Mile is simply a reworking of an old folktale? There are many in the field of folklore who see much of "pop culture" (i.e., popular movies and television shows, in particular) as simply a mutation of older examples of folklore. This reworking of age-old legends, according to German folklorist Hermann Bausinger in 1968, modernizing them for new audiences, keeps folk culture alive (Schechter, p. 8).

Legends of this sort, though they can be researched, do not stand up as well as some of the other types of family folklore and urban legends; the information has been disseminated orally for so long and there have been so many changes to the narrative over time that trying to track down the specific details is difficult, to say the least. Since the legend has been passed along in musical form, it has remained part of the culture, especially in the Southern states. Using music as a mnemonic device, to retain as much of the original story as possible, is helpful (Vansina, p.46), but it is not a guarantee that all the elements have remained intact. This particular narrative will probably continue to be "unsubstantiated," as has been the conclusion of many much more experienced and thorough scholars before this writer.

Along Highway 12 in Summers County, West Virginia stands a statue: A huge man with a hammer. It is positioned just above the Big Bend Tunnel on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. While the official mascot of the railroad company is the Chessie® Kitten (Dixon, p. 16), the honorary mascot for the construction of the line is, quite obviously, one John Henry, steel-driving man (Thomas). So the next time you hear the song "John Henry," remember that it has been around since the 19th Century and, therefore, may well have been sung or retold by your own ancestors; enjoy it as part of American folklore even if its truthfulness remains in question.


Axton, Hoyt. Greenback Dollar. (Vinyl album.) Horizon Records, WP-1601, 1963.

Blood-Patterson. Rise Up Singing. Bethlehem, PA: Sing Out Publications, 1988.

Cala, M. Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the untold story of an American legend (Book review) [Electronic version]. Sing Out!, March 22, 2007. Retrieved May 7, 2007, from

Dixon, Thomas W., Jr. Chessie the Railroad Kitten. Lynchburg, VA: TLC Publishing Co., 1988).

Dorson, Richard M. American Folklore. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1977.

Gena. The Green Mile, July 21, 2001. The ‘That Guy' Featured Film of the Week. Retrieved April 30, 2007, from (no longer accessible).

Hempel, Carlene. "The Man – Facts, Fiction and Themes," December, 1998. John Henry the Steel Driving Man. Retrieved June 18, 2010 from index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendId=294600594&blogId=490795556.

Lomaz, Alan. The Folk Songs of North America. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1960.

Marcatante, John J. American Folklore and Legends. New York: Globe Book Co., 1967.

Okun, Milton (Collector/Arranger). "‘John Henry': Choice of Earl Robinson" (pp. 77-79). Something to Sing About! The Personal Choices of America's Folk Singers. New York: The MacMillan Co.

Schechter, Harold. The Bosom Serpent: Folklore and Popular Art, 2nd Ed. New York: Peter Lang, 2001.

Silber, Fred and Silber, Irwin. Folksinger's Wordbook: Words to over 1,000 Songs. New York: Oak Publications, 1973.

Thomas, Ken. "File: John Henry-27527.jpg," Wikipedia, 2001; Accessed 26 July 2010, from

Vansina, J. Oral Tradition as History. Madison, WI: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

Wikipedia. "John Henry," Wikipedia, 26 July 2010; Accessed 26 July 2010, from

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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