"John Henry is an American folk hero and tall tale. Henry worked as a "steel-driver"—a man tasked with hammering and chiseling rock in the construction of tunnels for railroad tracks. In the legend, John Henry's prowess as a steel-driver was measured in a race against a steam powered hammer, which he won only to die in victory with his hammer in his hand. The story of John Henry has been the subject of numerous songs, stories, plays, and novels.
The legend of John Henry has been compared to that of other American "Big Men", such as Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. John Henry's heroism is associated with several elements: his strength and grit as a working-class common man, his status as a hero to African American laborers, and his allegorical depiction of "the tragedy of man versus machine" and other aspects of modernization.Legend
There are many versions of John Henry's story. In almost all versions of the story, John Henry is a black man of exceptional physical gifts, a former slave, possibly born in Tennessee. Henry becomes the greatest "steel-driver" in the mid-nineteenth-century push to expand railroads from the East Coast of the United States, across and through the mountains, to the frontier West. However, the owner of the railroad buys a steam-powered hammer to do the work of his mostly black steel-driving crew. To save his job and the jobs of his men, John Henry challenges the owner to a contest: Henry will race the steam-powered hammer.
The historicity of many aspects of the John Henry legend is subject to wide debate. It is commonly stated that Henry's rail work, including his race against the steam hammer, occurred while working along the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. In particular, Henry is claimed to have raced the steam hammer during the construction of Big Bend tunnel near Talcott, West Virginia between 1869 and 1871. Talcott holds a yearly festival named for Henry and a statue and memorial plaque have been placed along a highway south of Talcott as it crosses over the Big Bend tunnel.
In Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend, Scott Reynolds Nelson, an associate professor of history at the College of William and Mary, argues that John William Henry (prisoner #497 in the Virginia penitentiary, released by the warden to work on the C&O Railway in the 1870s) is the basis for the legendary John Henry.:39 Nelson asserts that a steam drill race at the Big Bend Tunnel would have been impossible because railroad records do not indicate a steam drill being used there. Instead, he believes the contest took place at the Lewis Tunnel, between Talcott andMillboro, Virginia, where prisoners worked beside steam drills. Nelson also believes that an early version of the ballad that refers to John Henry's grave as being at "the white house", "in sand", and somewhere that locomotives roar, indicates that Henry was buried at the Virginia penitentiary, where unmarked graves have been found.
According to Nelson:
...workers managed their labor by setting a "stint," or pace, for it. Men who violated the stint were shunned...Here was a song that told you what happened to men who worked too fast: they died ugly deaths; their entrails fell on the ground. You sang the song slowly, you worked slowly, you guarded your life, or you died.:32
Coosa Tunnel and tracks between Coosa Tunnel and neighboring Oak Mountain Tunnel, possible Alabama sites of John Henry legend.
Other research has placed Henry's famous race near Leeds, Alabama. Retired chemistry professor and folklorist John Garst, of the University of Georgia, has argued that the contest instead happened at the Coosa Mountain Tunnel or the Oak Mountain Tunnel of the Columbus & Western Railway (now part of Norfolk Southern Railway) near Leeds on September 20, 1887. Based on documentation that corresponds with the account of C. C. Spencer, who claimed in the 1920s to have witnessed the contest, Garst speculates that John Henry may have been a man named Henry who was born a slave to P.A.L. Dabney, the father of the chief engineer of that railroad, in 1850. Since 2007, the city of Leeds has honored John Henry's legend during an annual September festival, held third weekend in September, called the Leeds Downtown Folk Festival & John Henry Celebration.
Garst and Nelson have debated the merits of their divergent research conclusions. Other claims have been made over the years that places Henry and his contest in Kentucky or Jamaica."