Oh John Henry.
Dr Jerz asked: 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"?
Of course John Henry is a "tall-tale" because no one knows who the real person was. A Wikipedia article on John Henry suggests three possible John Henry figures, but none seem to have enough evidence to prove that John Henry actually existed.
John Henry's story was one of hope. Not only of hope against technology, but also hope for the African American community. So many folk and bluegrass songs pay tribute to John Henry, and his influence is undeniable. NPR has a great article on many songs idealized John Henry, but unfortunalely I had a lot of trouble getting the sound to work. I went onto Youtube and found some of the folk songs listed on the site. One such song, "John Henry" by Henry Thomas is so upbeat that the lyrics hardly matter. This version (1927) was one of the very first sung by an African American performer. I think this definitely suggests that the African American community held on to John Henry as an icon of strength and perseverance in the face of adversity. He was paid for his work and not just treated like a slave.
Another recording, "Spike Driver Blues" by Mississippi John Hurt also by an African American performer, is quite sad. This song talks about how John Henry, "left his hammer/ All over in red" meaning that John Henry worked himself to death. He tried so hard, and even thought he beat the steam drill, but later fell to his death. The sadness is definitely present to lament the rise of technology.
I do believe it is way too simplistic to say that the legend of John Henry is simply just about race or technology. There are a lot of individual pieces that made up the legend. Songs and stories mention John Henry's wife, children, owners, the society he lived in, and much more. To simply sum it up as a story of race and technology would be to undermine his legend.
I also wanted to share one more Youtube video I found while searching for John Henry songs. These two took an old Bluegrass song and turned it into a fast-paced guitar and banjo duo. Here is "John Henry" by Will Poe and Andrew Minor.