“A Man Ain’t Nothin’ But A Man”

PrintPrintEmailEmail

We often describe our neglected heroes as “unsung,” but surely the most “sung” hero in American history—taking the adjective literally—is a legendary Negro laborer from West Virginia named John Henry.

 

We often describe our neglected heroes as “unsung,” but surely the most “sung” hero in American history—taking the adjective literally—is a legendary Negro laborer from West Virginia named John Henry.

Nine tenths of all American Negroes, it has been said, are familiar with the “Ballad of John Henry” in some form; those who don’t know the song can tell its story. Among white people, too, the song has spread widely, particularly among railroad workers in the Southeast and coal miners in West Virginia and Kentucky, each group claiming John Henry as one of its own. Some of them have been known to resent the suggestion that John Henry was a Negro. He has been geographically claimed by Virginia, the Carolinas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Louisiana, and probably lots more. Like many other folk characters, John Henry assumes the image of those who sing about him.

Among professional musicians too, the ballad—without benefit of payola and promotion—has enjoyed a curious popularity. In supper clubs, urbane folk singers perform it for urbane diners, in the recital hall, Richard Dyer-Bennet clips it out in British accents. Aaron Copland has composed an orchestral suite based on it. Even a modern jazz band, the SauterFinegan Orchestra, has recorded it as a rhythmic recitation. The song seems to get newer and fresher, or at least more popular, all the time.

It would be tempting to say that the ballad’s popularity owes itself to the brilliance of its tune and the power of its words. But this cannot truthfully be said. Hardly any two singers sing the song to the same melody. Similarly, they vary the wording of its verses. The appeal of the legend, therefore, must be in the lean, muscular characterization of John Henry and the event that immortalized him.

John Henry was born to die with a hammer in his hand. (According to many versions of the tall tale, he announced this destiny to his mother when he was only three days old.) Hc grew up to become a great steel driver at Big Bend Tunnel on the Chesapeake and’ Ohio Railroad. A steel driver was a man who hammered a steel rod into rock to make holes lor inserting explosives. One day, his foreman, or “captain,” introduced a steam drill, whereupon:

John Henry told his captain “A man ain’t nothin’ but a man, But before I let your steam drill beat me down, I’ll die with a hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord, I’ll die with a hammer in my hand.”

His dignity at stake, John Henry challenged the steam drill to a race. He pounded “until his hammer was strikin’ fire,” and drove an accumulated length of fourteen feet of steel, while the steam drill only made nine. Then, asking for a cool drink of water, he lay down his hammer and he died. He was given a hero’s burial:

They took John Henry to the White House And buried him in the sand, Every locomotive come a-roarin’ by Cried “Yonder lies a steel-drivin’ man, Lord, Lord, Yonder lies a steel-drivin’ man.”

When that tribute is not contained in a particular version of the song, often this one is:

When John Henry died there was no coffin Big enough to hold all his bones, So they put him in a box car and buried him in the ground And let a mountain be his gravestone, Lord, Lord, Let a mountain be his gravestone.

Nobody knows today who wrote the song. In fact, “wrote” may be the wrong verb, for the man who was first moved to sing about John Henry perhaps never wrote down his words at all. The earliest-known copies of the ballad, in the form of cheaply produced broadsides, are believed to have been printed about the turn of the century, when the legend had already been widely diffused.

“John Henry” is truly a folk song. It was kept alive, at least in its early years, by one singer learning it from another. Singers have changed it to suit their musical and poetic tastes, or remade it to fill in for their failing memories. Thus they evolved it into a new, bigger, more dramatic story—indeed, a tall story. As a succession of nameless guitarists and banjopickers got further and further from the facts, they turned more and more to artistic invention.