EL 266 John Henry The mighty force of manual labor
"John Henry was a railroad man,
He worked from six 'till five" (Ballad of John Henry)
I think that the ballad of John Henry was propaganda for late Nineteenth Century industrialization. After slavery was abolished in the late Nineteenth Century, as we know from history, industrialization boomed. This brought jobs to America and a dream. I feel that the legend of John Henry is all about the American dream.
Giving the mythological character super-human like qualities in my opinion was a sales pitch for the United States. Basically saying that America is tough. It is built on hard work, sweat, and muscle. That is the framework for our country.
Take for instance, Pittsburgh. Our beloved city. It was built on steel and iron. In the late 1960s-1970s, the industry progressed at such a high rate. This employed many people. Steel and iron were icons for the local sport's teams. Making their mascots reflect the thriving ores.
Of course it's a tall tale.The story of the ballad could have never happened. That just seems to far-fetched. I feel it was more symbolic than anything.
As far as the different versions of the song. They are, in my opinion, coming from different perspectives. Who originally wrote the song? As I took a look at all the different songwriters who mention John Henry, I see that white men (Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Cash) they were well known for songs about America and the hardships to be endured. But a blues singer like Led Belly sang about blacks and the hardships they endured. Overall, I feel that the ballad describes overcoming hardships entering the American dream.
I really do not see racism as an issue in John Henry.