"John Henry"

History of an American folk song

A statue of John Henry on State Highway 12
Ken Thomas / Getty Images

According to the lore and the song(s), John Henry was a steel driver, meaning it was his job to make the tunnels through mountains for railroad tracks. As the story has it, Henry was challenged to a workers' duel - his hammer versus a giant steam drill. Henry supposedly beat the drill, only to die on the job "with his hammer in his hand."

Whether or not the lore and songs attributed to Henry's story are historically factual, the story of his dedication to his job is wrought with symbolism and a timely and universal message of individual empowerment.

Where technological advances may be brought in to replace the work of human beings, Henry sought to prove that a human hand can still best technology in the end. His story tackles the complicated messages and emotions entangled in the politics of workplace safety, human dignity, justice, and - perhaps on a more poetic level - the rights of the average worker.

Because there actually was a man named John Henry who actually, quite literally, died with his hammer in his hand, songs about him are rooted at least partly in history. They have, however, followed the path typical of oral legend, painting an image of Henry as having been larger than life.

The True Story of John Henry, as We Know It

He was, reportedly, a former slave who went to work as a steel-driver for railroad construction as a young man. He was a reasonably large man (he supposedly stood at about 6 feet tall and 200 pounds) and a banjo picker.

He was one of 1,000 men who worked for three years to manually drill a hole through a mountain on the C&O railroad line. Hundreds of those men died, and John Henry was only one among them. But, probably due to his size and strength - and, likely, the presence he had with the other men - the legend of his hard hammering spread from work camp to work camp.

As you can imagine workers thinking, if even big, strong John Henry got beat by his labor, what chance do we have?

So, it's not surprising that a version of the song emerged asserting "This old hammer killed John Henry, but it won't kill me." Indeed, Henry's real life story was a common one among black workers during the Reconstruction period following the Civil War. Where they were, technically, now free men, they were still treated as slaves. Not many other options were available short of leaving their homes and families in search of a better job outside the South. Though the workers manually drilling through John Henry's mountain could have struck for more civil working conditions, the reality of options was much ​more grim than it would become decades later at the height of the 20th Century's labor movement.

As such, the story of Henry stuck around and evolved through the years. Tracing the evolution of its lyrics and storyline can, in itself, be a lesson in the way the labor movement evolved during the first part of the 20th Century. Even now, as contemporary folksingers include mention of John Henry in their songs, mention of the folk legend automatically drags the song's theme into a statement about the way a person's work can affect the rest of their life.

John Henry in Folk Songs Today

Justin Townes Earle, for example, included a song on his 2009 album Midnight at the Movies titled "They Killed John Henry" (purchase/download). A contemporary take on the hard work of being a singer-songwriter in the early 21st Century, Earle's invocation of John Henry's legend is presented in the context of a statement of determination to carry on the work ethic of Earle's own grandfather who, he sings, "never saved a nickel though he tried."

Check out these other songs about John Henry:

  • "The Legend of John Henry's Hammer" (by Johnny Cash)
  • "John Henry" (by Pete Seeger)
  • "John Henry" (by Bill Monroe)
  • "John Henry & the Old North Wind" (by Joe Purdy)
  • "John Henry" (by Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston)