When analyzing the story of John Henry, it’s interesting to see how different versions affect the reader’s understanding. I think every version touches on themes of technology and race in some way, so I don’t believe it’s too simplistic to say that this is a story about both. However, each version seems to emphasizes a different theme more than the others, which definitely affects the message readers take away.
In the early version, there seems to be more focus on John Henry competing against the machine. He even says “Before that steam drill shall beat me down, / I’ll die with my hammer in my hand” and repeats a variation of this statement. John Henry is clearly focused on winning against the machine.
However, if you look at the construction crew version, although John Henry is competing against the machine, this version seems to emphasize him proving himself as an African American man. One part of this version says, “John Henry tol’ th’ white man; / Tol’ him kind-a sad: / “Cap’n George I want-a be yo’ fr’en; / If I beat yo’ to th’ bottom, don’t git mad.” It seems like John Henry has to make a case for himself here; he seems to think that even after winning, he’ll still be looked down on by the “white man.” The word choice of “sad” is also intriguing. In the early version, he’s confident about winning and wants to win, but in this version, there seems to be a bit more emotion behind his thought-process.
I also thought it was interesting that his version included the line “White Man turned on steam.” In a way, this almost seems like the blame is placed on the “white man” for the technology that wipes out the jobs done by real people, and African Americans in particular.
I also don’t think technology and race are the only two themes across the stories of John Henry. Every version has some reference to his wife and/or family, and the role of his family is given different levels of prominence in each version. This would be an interesting topic to analyze further as well.
Source: John Henry – Folk Character