You all have probably heard at least one version or variation of the song “John Henry.” In the first part of his book, Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend, historian Scott Reynolds Nelson describes how he discovered the identity of the man behind the legend. The real John Henry wasn’t a towering, musclebound hero (as you can see in the book cover art above), but an unlucky, 5’1″ convict from the Virginia Penitentiary sent to work on the railroad.
The book then details the whole context of a post-Civil War South where free blacks were arrested willy-nilly, harshly sentenced to the penitentiary and then used as a disposable labor force to build the railroads. Thus “John Henry,” the song, is not a heroic tale; it’s a history lesson and it’s a cautionary tale.
“In the context of the traditions around the John Henry story and the hammer songs, this seemed less a story about praise than a chilling song about death — a song that men at work sang to warn themselves about the dangers of overwork.” (p. 31)
Though many of us know the song as an upbeat number, it likely was originally sung much slower, as a work song. Trackliners’ work songs, or hammer songs, were used to set a work crew’s pace especially when teams had to coordinate the timing of chisels and hammers.
Many of us also might assume the “white house” mentioned in some versions of the song (“They took John Henry to the white house / And buried him in the san’ / And every locomotive come roarin’ by / Says there lays that steel drivin’ man.”) is the president’s home in Washington D.C. In one of the greatest triumphs of Nelson’s research, he discovers that the white house in the song instead was a building at the Virginia Penitentiary next to which there was a burial ground for convicts, many of whom died building the railroad.
Especially to those of you interested in U.S. history, labor history, oral traditions, or folk songs, I would recommend this book. But why not make Black History Month a good reason for anyone to read a good book about our shared, often shameful, history?
p.s. Nelson also smartly wrote for younger readers a companion book called Ain’t Nothin’ But a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry.