“A Man Ain’t Nothin’ But A Man”

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Another question is: How superior a man would John Henry have had to be to “drive fourteen feet while the steam drill only made nine”—or even to drive the twenty feet that Neal Miller recalls? One answer might be found in the drilling contests that were popular among miners in the Rocky Mountains as reported in The Engineering Magazine of September, 1892. At a tournament in Helena, Montana, William Shea drove 25 5/16 inches by hand through granite in fifteen minutes. A doubles team of Davy and Tague drove 33 5/16 inches in the same time. If one man, drilling in granite, could drive more than two feet in fifteen minutes, his rate would come to eight and one half feet per hour. Two hours of drilling would put him in John Henry’s class. According to Hedrick, John Henry spaced his hammering over two days. Furthermore, the red shale at Big Bend is not as hard as granite. So, clearly, the part of the tall tale of John Henry that describes the actual race is not so tall at that.

Then how tall is the account of John Henry’s death? If Miller was indeed to be taken as the only eyewitness, he might know if John Henry truly laid down his hammer and died. Miller’s recollection is considerably less romantic, but quite revealing of tunneling conditions as well as of the process of folk composition:

John Henry didn’t die from getting too hot in the contest with the steam drill, like you say. He drove in the heading a long time after that … He was killed all right, and I know the time. The boys round the tunnel told me that he was killed from a blast of rock in the heading and he was put in a box with another Negro and buried at night under the big fill at the east end of the tunnel.

The bosses at the tunnel were afraid the death of John Henry would cause trouble among the Negroes, and they often got rid of dead Negroes in some way like that. All the Negroes left the tunnel once and wouldn’t go in for several days. Some of them won’t go in it now because they have got the notion they can still hear John Henry driving steel in there. He’s a regular ghost around this place. His marks in the side of the rocks where he drove with the steam drill stayed there awhile at the east end of the tunnel but when the railroad bed was widened with double tracking they destroyed them.

If this account is true, the secret of John Henry’s death was kept from the ears of John Hedrick, the woodwork foreman. He recalled that “John Henry stayed round the tunnel a year or two, then went away somewhere. I don’t remember when he left … John Henry was there twelve months after the contest. I know. He was there when the hole was opened between shaft one and two.”

So the tragic end of John Henry, if he ever lived at all to beat a steam drill down, was a piece of masterful literary embroidery.

The testimony supports the belief that a race between John Henry and a steam drill could have taken place. Although lovers of folk song fondly maintain the faith that it did, the myth is almost as important as the truth. A legend which has grown over more than half a century is itself a fact, shedding its own light. The “Ballad of John Henry” tells how a series of generations came to wish that John Henry had lived and died, whether he did or not.

For all we know, John Henry may have been a vain, hammering fool. Or perhaps, in measuring himself against a machine, he was merely doing what a foreman told him to do. In any case, judging from the testimony, he was no martyr.

But the John Henry we sing about is no mere steel driver pitted against a steam drill. He is like modern man standing in awe, in self-doubt, before the machines that progressively unman him. Tidy as the song and its ending may be, the conflict faced by John Henry in the cradle of the industrial revolution has not been resolved; it has, in fact, become vastly more troubling. As machines do still more of our work, the song seems to ask: what will become of us? Will we ever be, like the John Henry of the song, whole men again?

The tragic triumph of a fictional John Henry reassures us that man, the maker of wondrous mechanical things, is more wondrous than the things he makes; that a man who “ain’t nothin’ but a man” is strong and worthy of supreme dignity. The impressive thing about this simple, powerful tragedy is that while it surpasses the careful creations of many reflective poets, it has been composed collectively by numbers of men, unknown to each other and untutored in the ways of literary form. It is only a crude song, but it is also a formidable literary achievement.