John Henry is not only one of my favorite songs, I think it's one of the greatest contributions made by American music. It is a marvelous amalgam of philosophy, history and tragedy with a driving, life-affirmative pulse.
People often start the story of America's contribution to Art with the influx of European avant-garde artists fleeing the ascendancy of Nazism. But this narrative neglects the incredible, indigenous arts, already in full flower by the time the Surrealists arrived in the States, that had an equally profound effect upon 20th century culture. I try not to read too much into the fact that this neglect results in an American art that is supposed to begin with a transfer of white, European intellectual capital instead of one that begins with the immense talents of our own ex-slave population combining over a long period of time with high and low European musical traditions to birth both Jazz and Folk, respectively. Instead of American art as the result of a long, slow simmer combining all of the myriad nuances of our incredible diversity, its the Surrealists and the Frankfurt School moving to New York and Los Angeles that begins American art ex nihilo.
But it's inaccurate to occlude black artists from the history of American art. Jazz directly affected every art movement from the 1920's through the 1960's. Looking at a Pollock painting, do you not see Charlie Parker in equal parts with an Americanized Surrealism? And Folk music--along with its mutant offsrping, Rock and Roll--arguably affected every art and social movement from the 1960's onward. (Though it had help, Rock and Roll was powerful enough to upend the social order in and out of America: simply hearing "Rock Around the Clock" could start riots in Germany.)
But why rewrite art history in a post about John Henry? Because John Henry is part of that history. Its story is of a black man working himself to death, often over a bet with a white man (usually his boss) and in the earliest versions that have been collected, this racial tension figures prominently in the narrative. Eventually, however, verses get dropped, epithets get replaced and John Henry can return as a heroic figure for the mostly-white Labor movement, albeit as a somewhat-comic rather than a tragic one. By looking at the rich history of this song, we can see that John Henry is something like an American saint: a martyr to manual labor at the service of speed and transformation--the end of one America, giving itself up in sacrifice for the next--but whose strange and beautiful act of prideful selflessness isn't unmixed with exploitation.
There are many, many versions of the song--the depth of its variety is staggering--but in nearly every version John Henry forsees his own death. Sometimes he does this as a baby, sometimes as a man, but he is always, like Babe Ruth pointing to a spot in the stands, quite specific in his call: "John Henry told his captain/'Captain, how can it be? The Big Bend Tunnel on the C. & O. road/Gonna be the death of me, Lord, Lord./Gonna be the death of me.'"
The Big Bend Tunnel on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad was more than a mile long, running straight through a mountain in West Virginia. "Driving steel" didn't originally refer to laying down track. According to NPR's Present at the Creation, in order to tunnel through mountains, men would drive steel spikes into the rock and then fill the hole with explosives. This laborious method was later replaced with steam drills and a contest between John Henry and one such drill is of course the subject of the song.
John Henry's miracles do not end with prognostication. In a superhuman effort, he defeats the steam drill and in so doing causes his own death. This is often represented by him "taking sick" and going to bed or driving steel so hard that he "broke his poor heart," but in one particularly gruesome variation, "He broke a rib in his lef'-han' side,/An' his intrels fell on de groun',/Lawd, Lawd, an' his intrels fell on de groun'."
John Henry, Zarathustra-like, also tells his captain, "A man ain't nothin' but a man" and, while not a praying man himself, he tells his Shaker, "Shaker, you better pray./For if I miss this six foot of steel/Tomorrow'll be your burial day." In one of the versions collected by John Lomax, he also asks his Shaker, "'why don' you sing?/I'm throwin' twelve poun's from my hips on down,/Jes' listen to de col' steel ring,/Lawd, Lawd, jes' listen to de col' steel ring.'" This strange equation of religion, music and labor is strong: earlier in the same Lomax version, John Henry has a little woman named Mary Magdalene who would "go to de tunnel and sing for John/jes' to hear John Henry's hammer ring."
John Henry's hammer itself is also the subject of much versification. Most often it is nine pounds, although it sometimes swells to ten, twelve or even thirty. In my favorite version--the Wiliamson Brothers and Curry 1927 recording, "Gonna Die With My Hammer In My Hand"-- it has a handle made of bone and "Every time he hit the drill on the head,/Hammer reached right down and groaned, Lord, Lord. Hammer reached right down and groaned."
John Henry is sometimes a paragon of fidelity, sometimes a womanizer and sometimes a cuckold. (Serious folk nerds may be interested in the overlap between John Henry lyrics and other folk favorites: John Henry also has a little woman dressed in red and another dressed in blue, just as John Hardy and the unnamed protagonist of the famous blues song "Cocaine" do. He also sometimes "come's o'er the hill with a twenty dollar bill and its 'Baby, where you been so long?'"--a phrase familiar from "I Wish I Was A Mole In the Ground"). In many versions, his "little woman" actually becomes celibate in his memory--"I don't need no man, lawd, lawd."-- while "all the women of the west" flock to the spot of his death. In one of my favorite verses that appears in nearly every version, once John Henry has lain his hammer down, his woman, either Polly Anne or Sally Anne, goes to work and "Sally drove the steel like a man, Lord, Lord. Sally drove the steel like a man."
John Henry is often buried "in the sand" so that every time a train rolls by, they can holler, "There lies a steel driving man." In a touching variation to this final verse that first appears in Leadbelly's rendition, they bury John Henry at the White House. It is interesting that there is never a mention of immortality; John Henry is a purely secular saint. He died for us.
But John Henry is not only a song about a railroad martyr; it's about the industrial revolution itself. John Henry's race with the steam drill is a parable about machine labor replacing manual labor and the ways of life that went with it. There are many folk songs that bemoan the coming of the industrial revolution, but the body of John Henry songs are perhaps the most complicated. Henry is a hero, but he is also a tragic figure. He foresees his death because there can be no future for steel drivin' men. The country has fundamentally changed. And so, "The very last words that John Henry said: 'Son, Don't be a steel drivin' man, Lord, Lord. Son, don't be a steel driving man.'"
Here's another beautiful version, "Spike Driver Blues," by Mississippi John Hurt (the music starts at 1:55):