Finding the Real John Henry

American Icons, People
on August 26, 2007
Scott Reynolds Nelson

John Henry, the mighty railroad worker with a sledgehammer who beat a steam-powered drill in a spike-driving contest, long has been a celebrated folk hero. But most people assume he was only a legend. Not so, says Scott Reynolds Nelson, author of the new biography Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, The Untold Story of an American Legend.

AP: What’s the history of John Henry?

SRN: When the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad was building the mile-long Lewis Tunnel through the mountains of western Virginia in the 1870s, they couldn’t get laborers to work alongside the steam drill because it produced bad air. So they got 200 convicts. John Henry was from New Jersey, and he originally was arrested for shoplifting.

AP: How did you learn he was a real man?

SRN: I started looking into the penitentiary and railroad records and found all these prisoners being shuttled out to dig this tunnel in 1872, and one of them was named John Henry, who battled side-by-side with a steam drill.

AP: How did the “John Henry” song originally come to be?

SRN: Based on interviews done in the 1920s, either Cal Evans, a roundhouse cook, or an unnamed water boy transmitted the story and composed the song around 1875-1880.

AP: How did the man become the legend?

SRN: Railroad track liners used the song to remind others to work slowly and preserve themselves. In the early part of the 20th century, folklore scholars discovered the song. They said, “He must have been 10 feet tall and 4 feet wide, just a huge man.” So he became a folklore relic, even though he was actually very short—5-feet-1 and a quarter, the perfect size for making tunnels.

AP: In what ways has the story of John Henry been revised and used at different times by different groups?

SRN: In the 1930s, the Communist Party decided he represented the plight of workers fighting against capitalism. Black men and women in the Harlem Renaissance sang the song, and in country music, “John Henry” was the third song Fiddlin’ John Carson recorded. White cotton mill workers latched on to the story of “fighting against the machine” and saw him as one of their own.

AP: How many different recordings have been made of the song?

SRN: There must be close to 200 versions. Bruce Springsteen’s album The Seeger Sessions has a great version. There are even hip-hop renditions.

AP: You say even the term “rock ’n’ roll” comes from the John Henry songs.

SRN: Yes. One of them talks about rocking and rolling, because that’s what a two-man hammer team has to do when they’re drilling. One man holds the spike, and the other person hits it with a hammer. And he says to his buddy, or shaker, “Rock, buddy, rock,” and “Roll, buddy, roll.” It’s a command to move the drill from side to side—rock it—or twist it around—roll it. That’s what a shaker has to do to make a good hole in the side of a mountain.

AP: How did John Henry die?

SNR: Basically everyone who worked on that tunnel was dead within a couple of years. The granite dust generated from the steam drill got sucked into their noses and their lungs. John Henry died of what we now call acute silicosis; then, they would have called it consumption. He was 23.

AP: In 21st-century America, with all our technology, why is the story of John Henry still relevant and important?

SRN: People are always lining themselves up against impossible odds. And with machines, you have the sense that your buttons are being pushed by something that isn’t even human—in this case, an engine that does the work of 50 men. John Henry is right at that shift from water and wood to steam and steel.