A Tale of Hope
In what ways is the John Henry story a tall-tale? How is it social commentary? Is it primarily a story about technology, or about race? Is it too simplistic to say "both"?
Obviously, John Henry's story is a tall-tale in many ways. To define, a tall-tale is a story with unbelievable elements made to look factual or true. John Henry is told to be almost superhuman... he is extremely strong and capable of almost anything, making him extremely unrealistic. He could hammer through mountains or steamboats until death. In this respect, he kind of seems like a non-green hulk.
John Henry's story is also one of social commentary. This means that it is a story expressing an opinion on the nature of society. I think that by the use of John Henry, whether accurate or not, a sense of hope was established in that society at that time. No mountain was too big for him, no task too much. Perhaps the use of this story was to elevate a society that needed a hero.
Now, it is definitely too simplistic to say that John Henry is just a tale of technology and race. Yes, these are two important aspects, but there is so much more that goes into the story. Family dynamics are described. Ambitions, hopes, and dreams are mentioned. Also, John was a symbol and hero for the African American race. He wasn't treated as a slave and was recognized for his work.
Also, I compared "An Early Version" with "A Folk Version of the Ballad." The Folk Version is just a lyrical version of John's life, telling the main parts of the story. The Early Version is more of a commentary - it has John's dialogue. There are many similarities in the two versions story-wise, but the Folk Version is a lot longer. One difference is that in the end, the Early Version claims that only John's wife went to his grave, while the Folk Version states that all of the women in the West came, along with his "liddle mother." The Early Version is much easier to read than the Folk Version because of the language; The Early Version uses modern english while the Folk Version uses vernacular of that time.