November 01, 2004

"[John Henry] didn't really die... just stopped livin' in his Mammy's shack, and started livin' in the hearts of men, forever and a day."

When I first chose John Henry for my panel discussion, I thought I would be working with a short story. So, when I started researching, I was surprised to find that the John Henry tall tales were not in a short story format, but rather as songs. I wasn’t sure how a presentation would go, based on a few songs, but I finally narrowed my topic down to the history of John Henry and tall tale.

History of Tall Tales
Settlers in the American wilderness used storytelling for entertainment. Obviously, there was no television or radio, so the people would instead gather around after the day’s work and tell each other tales. Each group, the loggers, cowboy, railroad and steel workers, had their own “superhero”; maybe having a superhuman doing the same job gave them a little pride and hope while doing their job.
Every tall tale hero has a gift or special talent; everyone has something that made them entirely unique from everyone else. Men, women, and sometimes animals were the focus on these American tales. Some of the most well-known characters are:
• Davy Crockett
• Johnny Appleseed
• Paul Bunyan & Babe, the blue ox
• Pecos Bill

John Henry’s History
John Henry’s story is based on real people and events, but it’s not really clear whether or not John Henry was a real person. Some of the legends say that John Henry was an African-American slave that was born in Tennessee in the 1840s or 1850s with a “hammer in his hand” and then moved to West Virginia (or Virginia) to build the Big Bend railroad tunnel. Other legends portray John as a white man, a dock worker, a saint, a womanizer, and sometimes a little of everything. Sometimes John is six feet, while other time he’s as tall as eight feet and originates from Alabama.

On, John is established as a real man. He was born a slave, worked for the railroads after the Civil War, and died in the 30s; he also had a wife and baby. The facts of the legend are harder to pin down. Through the ballads and folk songs, it is said that John worked for the C&O Railroad Company and worked to rebuild the Southern states after the Civil War. The railroad was moving quickly, but the Big Bend Mountain was a literal road block; it took three years and 1,000 men to clear through the mountain. As the songs say, John Henry was one of the best workers and used a 14-pound hammer and could tunnel up to 20 feet a day.

While the men were working, a salesman happened by with a steam-powered drill. He challenged that his drill could outwork any man-John took the challenge. John won the race (he drove 14 feet to the machines nine), but John died after the battle. Some say he collapsed from exhaustion, while others tell it was a stroke. This is just a simple view of the competition; some stories say John used to 20-pound hammers, one in each hand.

The fact and fiction of John Henry’s life is blurred; over 150 years has passed since John’s life and his true life and his legend have become intermingled. John was a source of guidance and hope for the railroad workers and American settlers. John was an inspiration in his time and even today-an example of raw work ethic and unbeatable strength.

Here are some questions to think over after hearing the history and legend of John Henry:

• Does it make a difference if John was real or just an imaginary character?

• Would the stories and songs make a bigger impact if John was real?

• Would his story have been as exciting if he was just a regular man or does his "superheroness" add to the story?

Posted by KatherineLambert at November 1, 2004 12:56 PM


I think that it doesn't matter whether John Henry was real or not. It's the actual legend that makes the readers involved in the story, for example, You have heard of the "Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Well, some people believe it and others don't. It depends on how well the story is told. If it gets pasted down from generations to generations, then people well begin to believe it. Do you think that people are depending so much on technology? People should appreciate John Henry's work ethnic and he proves that man power overtook the machine. We should be able to make it without so much technology. We did in the past, so why not now?

-Nabila :)

Posted by: NabilaUddin at November 1, 2004 05:56 PM

You are going through the "blogging obsession" ;) Anyways, good presentation, startlingly familiar - if that's even a word. :-P

Posted by: Renee at November 2, 2004 10:06 PM
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