October 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 6
The song tells of John Henry, steel-drivin’ man, who fought a steam drill and won. Did he? Or was he just a myth?
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:
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:
When that tribute is not contained in a particular version of the song, often this one is:
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.
The poem they have left us, of a proud hammerswinger caught in a conflict of the industrial revolution, resembles classic tragedy. Our hero’s destiny is prophesied before his journey begins. Then, threatened by the machine, he meets the challenge, defeats the machine in a race, and pays for his victory with his life. We do not know, when the song ends, whether to exult or to weep. As in classic tragedy, we are not quite sure if the hero has won or lost.
What makes John Henry so attractive a literary and historical character? Did he ever live? Did he race a steam drill? Did he beat it and, if so, did his victory destroy him? Why has his story survived? It seems in order to look first at what is known of the facts.
When the tracks of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway first stretched westward through Virginia and then, in the dosing months of the 1860’s, crossed the West Virginia line, the engineers collided with the most formidable of their natural obstacles, the Allegheny Mountains.
More than two years were consumed merely in surveying the wilderness from White Sulphur Springs, on the state line, to Kanawha Falls, little more than fifty miles westward. Surveyors followed what appeared to be the course of least resistance, the banks of the Greenbrier; but the river, wrenching and twisting like an angry snake, lent little ease to their task.
Half a mile west of Talcott in Summers County, the Grccnbrier turns to the south. It wanders for about ten miles in a near loop, doubling back almost to where the bend begins—only a little more than a mile west. Engineers had to decide either to lay their track along the winding riverbank or to tunnel a mile and a quarter through the red shale mountain. They decided to tunnel. It was a decision of great magnitude, for the tunnel was to be, at that time, the longest in America.
The first chip in the mountainside was hammered early in 1870. Late in 1872, the bore was completed, trackage laid, and the first train passed through. Over the portals, in stone lettering, the men carved the name, Great Bend Tunnel. But then and now, everybody has always called it the Big Bend.
About a thousand men labored in Big Bend Tunnel. Most of them were Negroes, only seven or eight years out of slavery. Nobody knows how many of them died, for there seemed to be a studied effort on the part of both the railroad and the press to play down the casualties. If the danger became too widely known, labor might become too difficult to recruit. But guesses might be based on casualties reported at other tunnels. The Wheeling Intelligencer said on December go, 1870, that 1,000 lives had been lost at Mont Cenis Tunnel in the French Alps. The Kanawha Chronicle revealed on December 17, 1873, that 136 had been killed in boring Hoosac Tunnel in Massachusetts.
The three great killers were tunnel sickness (from heat and foul air), explosives (nitroglycerin, dualin, and gunpowder), and falls of rock. At Big Bend, one slide of 8,000 cubic feet of rock was reported by the Greenbrier Independent on June 1, 1872, but the paper said nothing about casualties. Many must have been dead by then, however, for as the tunnel penetrated the mountain, the likelihood of deaths from foul air mounted with each day.
And constantly there was the blasting of explosives. Drilling in Mont Genis Tunnel was described in Every Saturday , October 14, 1871: “The smoke from the blast became so thick that the light from the lamps was visible no farther than a tew steps … Suddenly an infernal noise burst upon us from the end of the gallery. One would have said ten thousand hammers were falling simultaneously on their anvils. A sharp, whistling sound made itself heard above this clamor, piercing yon to the very marrow.”
Under conditions such as these, men like John Henry labored at Big Bend for twelve to fourteen hours a day to do what the engineers said had to be done. America needed a new railroad to move west, and a mountain was standing in the way.
In the middle and late 1920’s, while there was still time tu locate living persons who might have been on hand at the building of Big Bend Tunnel, a pair of folklorists became interested in John Henry and his exploits. These two men conducted their investigations separately—in fact, competitively—and with occasional flares of animosity. But their research uncovered virtually all the reliable material. Guy K. Johnson, of the University of North Carolina Institute for Research in Social Science, published his findings in 1928 ( Johny Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend ). Louis W. Chappell. associate professor of English, University of West Virginia, published his in 1933 ( Johny Henry: A Folklore Study ).
The first step in pursuit of the legend was to find out whether John Henry’s race against the steam drill could have taken place. This meant establishing whether both hand labor and steam drilling were practiced while Big Bend Tunnel was under construction; and then, whether the race described in the ballad would have been a reasonable contest.
If a drill was tried at the east portal of Big Bend, as claimed in certain testimony gathered by Johnson and Chappell, it would have been used early in the two years of east-to-west construction, probably in the summer or fall of 1870.
The first reciprocating percussion drill was apparently patented in March, 1849, by J. J. Couch of Philadelphia. A steam drill was used in the construction ol Hoosac Tunnel, which was begun in 1855 and completed in 1873. Another was used at Lewis Tunnel, a few miles from Big Bend, in January, November, and possibly in April of 1871. While Lewis was cut mainly through hard sandstone, Big Bend had to be drilled through red shale. A drill might suit one and not the other. But if a drill manufacturer sold one to the contractor at Lewis, it seems likely he would have tried to make another sale at Big Bend.
But the facts of the John Henry legend, it appears, were fated to elude historians. While there is an abundance of data abont other tunnels, a fire in a Chesapeake & Ohio warehouse destroyed all the engineers’ and contractors’ reports about Rig Bend. All must rest on recollection and hearsay.
One of the few living men found by Johnson who had anything to do with the engineering aspects oF Big Bend was a Chesapeake & Ohio engineer named James P. Nelson, who said: “I saw the first shovelful of earth cast, and worked on top of the tunnel and underneath it, day and night, and have no recollection of a steam drill having been used.”
Johnson also located William Wimmer, a retired locomotive engineer living near the tunnel, who claimed that he had driven the first locomotive through Big Bend. He was seventy-two when Johnson interviewed him; he had been fourteen when work began on the tunnel. Wimmer said:
“I carried water and steel to shaft number one. That was down toward the west end of the tunnel. 1 have heard about the steel-driving contest but 1 think 1 must have heard about it some time after the tunnel was finished.” But a race could have taken place at the east end, Wimmer allowed, without his hearing of it.
You see, those steel-driving contests were pretty common. 1 don’t mean between men and steam drills, but between two pair of drivers. I have seen many a contest in my day. Back in North Carolina, I’ve seen two or three hundred people gather on a Sunday afternoon to see a contest. Thcrc’d usually be a wager up. They’d agree to drive a certain depth or a certain length of time and the winning pair, that is, the driver and the turner, would get the money. I’ve seen them put up two or three hundred dollars in a contest—besides lots of bets by spectators on the side. Most people who have worked around tunnels or quarries get used to contests and sort of take them for granted; so i can see how this fellow, John Henry, could have had his contest without raising much stir around camp. Still, since it was a man against a steam drill, it does look as if the news would have spread around pretty well.
The “news,” in fact, did spread pretty well. Around Talcott and the Summers County seat, Hinton, the investigations of Johnson and Chappell turned up several elderly Negroes who claimed to have known John Henry himself. Nearly every one of them professed absolute knowledge that the race took place, but in every case their accounts collapsed under scrutiny. The informants would relate John Henry to the wrong dates or the wrong contractor or even the wrong tunnel. But the tale had persisted among them.
Two bits of hearsay picked tip by Chappell, both from old-time white residents of the area, suggest that the race was known and discussed by John Henry’s contemporaries. One was J. E. Huston, who began work as a telegrapher at Big Bend in 1893. He said:
The John Henry slory has been in our family ever since we moved to Big Bend Tunnel in 1881. My father worked for the C&O Railroad and they moved him to Talcott in 1881. After we moved here I heard him talk with people around the tunnel time and time again about the contest John Henry had with the steam drill.
The other account came from George Hedrick, who was seventeen when work began on Big Bend in 1870. He lived a lew hundred yards from the tunnel with his brother, John, twenty-three, and their father. He told Chappell:
My brother John helped to survey the tunnel and had charge of the woodwork in building it. I often saw John Henry drive steel out there. I saw the steam drill too, when they brought it to the east end of the tunnel, but I didn’t see John Henry when he drove in the contest with it. I heard about it right after. My brother saw it. My memory is Bill Henderson and John Henry drove together against the steam drill. That was the usual way of driving steel in the tunnel.
George Hedrick added that John Henry “was black, and six feet high, thirty five years old and weighed two hundred or a little more. He could sing as well as he could drive steel and was always singing when he was in the tunnel—‘Can’t you drive her—huh!’”
An interview with his brother, John Hedrick, revealed that he didn’t quite see the race either:
I was manager of the woodwork in putting through Rig Bend Tunnel and built the shanties of the Negroes there in the camp … He [John Henry] drove steel with the steam drill at the east end of the inside of the tunnel not far from the end. Hc was working under Foreman Steele and he beat the steam drill, too. The steam drill got hung up, but John Henry was beating him all the time. I didn’t see the contest, because it was on the inside of the tunnel and not many could get in there. I was taking up timber and heard him singing and driving and he was keeping in tune.
The man who came closest to being an eyewitness of the race, at least according to his own claim, was C. S. “Neal” Miller, who came to the Big Bend Tunnel area in the spring of 1869 at the age of seventeen. As a water boy and steel carrier for the drivers at the east end, Miller claimed he carried for the gang of which John Henry was a member:
I saw John Henry drive steel in Big Bend Tunnel. He was a great singer, and always singing some old song when he was driving steel. He was a black, raw-boned man, thirty years old, six feet high and weighed near two hundred pounds. He and Phil Henderson, another big Negro but not so high, were pals, and said that they were from North Carolina … Dave Withrow, who lived with his wife at our home, was foreman in charge of the i work on the outside of the tunnel where John Henry beat the steam drill, and Alike Breen was the foreman on the inside of the tunnel there.
The steam drill was brought to Riß Bend Tunnel as an experiment, and failed because it stayed broke all the time, or hung up in the rocks, and it could be used only on bench drills anyway. It was brought to the cast end of the tunnel when work first commenced there, and was never carried in the tunnel. It was thrown aside, and the engine was taken from it and carried to shaft number one, where it took the place of a team of horses and pulled the bucket up in the shaft with a windlass.
When Johnson asked Miller if the contest had many witnesses or had caused excitement, Miller replied:
No, it was just considered a sort of test on the steam drill. There wasn’t any big crowd around to see it. I was going and coming with water and steel, so I saw how they were getting along lrom time to time. But I didn’t get excited over it especially. The test lasted over a part of two days, and the depth was twenty feet, more or less.
An intriguing item in Miller’s testimony is that he recalls the event not as a race but a test. Thus, by reducing the tale’s drama, he increases its plausibility. A sales demonstration of a machine previously sold, say, to the contractor of Lewis Tunnel, would not be likely to whip up a crowd as a race would. Also, the foreman would in all likelihood have hushed tip the event so as not to divert other laborers from their jobs. And finally, if the machine failed, as Miller says it did, the maker of the steam drill would be even less likely to have mentioned the test.
But if the machine was useful at other tunnels, would it fail at Big Bend? Johnson learned from a Mr. Walter Jordan of New York, who, he said, “has had a long acquaintance with drills and drillers,” that a steam drill would break down in certain kinds of rock. Neal Miller’s firsthand recollection of the machine’s failure fits neatly with this statement from Jordan:
The writer has himself often beat a steam drill or air drill on a down [wet] hole in very soft rock, as the machine would “mud up” and have to be cleaned every four or five inches. I have often seen a churn drill out a hole in soft rock where it would be impossible to use a machine.
The ballad itself rephrases the testimony of Walter Jordan and Neal Miller, as though the singers have known that Big Bend was cut through red shale instead of hard sandstone:
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.