October 31, 2004

Well, Did He or Didn't He???

According to Wikipedia, the three words are described as follows:

- "A myth is often thought to be a lesson in story form which has deep explanatory or symbolic resonance for preliterate cultures, who preserve and cherish the wisdom of their elders through oral traditions by the use of skilled story tellers. Its truth is larger than the advent of critical history which may, or may not exist as in an authoritative written form which becomes "the story"

- "A legend is a narrative of human actions that are perceived both by teller and listeners to take place within human history and to possess certain qualities that give the tale verisimilitude. Legend, for its active and passive participants, includes no happenings that are outside the realm of "possibility," defined by a highly flexible set of parameters, which may include miracles that are perceived as actually having happened…"

- "Folklore is the ethnographic concept of the tales, legends, or superstitions current among a particular ethnic population, a part of the oral history of a particular culture."

The Legend:
In the late 1800’s after the country was reshaping from the Civil War, railroads were being created. During this time period, companies would hire thousands of slaves to smooth the area and make way for the proposed railroad tracks. Some researchers believe that it was at this time that the legend of John Henry arose. John Henry’s company wanted to save money therefore they bought a steam powered hammer to complete the rest of the work by the slaves. In an attempt to save his job and the jobs of his fellow slaves, John Henry protests against the use of the steam hammer and challenges the owner to a contest. John Henry vows to out work the steam hammer in driving spikes and working the railroad. In a duel against the steam hammer, John Henry collapsed and fainted at the end of the all day contest. Calling for his wife during his last minutes, he questioned if he outbeat the steam hammer in which he did: the steam hammer was at 21 feet and John Henry was at 27 1/2. Shortly after John Henry died of exhaustion and heart attack. The legend is symbolic of the working class of the time period and a martyr for the slaves.

The Real John Henry:
According to "John Henry: The Steel Driving Man" John Henry was believed to have existed. Supposidly John Henry was an African American slave born out of Alabama in the 1840’s. Standing at 6 feet tall and 200 pounds, he was a giant for the times. Data research collected by Guy Johnson and Louis Chappell focused on the possibility of a real John Henry existing and racing the steam hammer. Johnson received letters from C. C. Spencer, F. P. Barker, and Glendora Cannon Cummings all making statements regarding Henry’s race with the steam hammer. Spencer’s letter was particularly thick with detail and even claimed to have witnessed Henry’s race and death. However deep with detail, Johnson was unable to verify some of Spencer’s facts.

Question to Ponder?
- What do you believe? John Henry: Real or legend? And why?

Posted by ReneeDeFloria at October 31, 2004 9:56 PM


I would believe that John Henry is a legend because the facts are not accurate. The main points are consistent throughout many websites, but some of the important details are not consistent; for example, the place he was brought up and whether or not he was white or black. What do you think?

-Nabila :)

Posted by: NabilaUddin at November 1, 2004 5:20 PM

I believe John Henry was a real person, but I don't believe that he was a 'super hero'who beat a steam drill. As the story was told and told again he probably was exaggerated. John Henry was probably a very tough and hard working man that worked on the railroad. Working away all the time, and really having nothing to do other than work, eat, (drink), and sleep, Henry's fellow workmen probably started kidding around about how tough he was. Kind of like when your friends start you a nickname, before you know it everyone's calling you by this nickname. The same probably applies to John Henry, only it turned into folklore.
What I think is so particular about the legend of John Henry, is that he wasn't some tough, buff, sexy, strong, whiteman, but he was said to be a slave from Alabama. That aspect I think adds to the essense of the legend and the concept of our development as a country.

Posted by: Jessica Zelenak at November 30, 2004 5:17 PM