John Henry (Folklore Character)

Joe Louis…. cough cough, John Henry, cough


The legendary tale of John Henry is one of the most famous American tall-tales. Typically his story is told through two different types of songs: ballads and work songs (also known as hammer songs) and each song has its own varying lyrics. There is no doubt that the story of John Henry symbolizes physical strength, dignity, racial pride, and endurance but the main question that remains is whether this tale actually happened or not. Many historians try to find resources to prove that it’s true but I think the most important thing is to remember that even if it didn’t happen it still inspired many people and their true stories. The image of John Henry has served so many times as a motivator and symbol in society. In the NPR Radio Coverage the narrator compares John Henry to Joe Louis or better known as the “brown bomber.” “His strength, his heroic rise from common origins, his character within the ring, and his conduct outside it mirror the traits associated with John Henry.” Even if John Henry did not actually exist the story was true through Joe Louis. This is why the tale is so important; because it taught society social tolerance and diversity even during hard times like during World War II. Both men actually served as symbolic images during World War II as anti-nazi sentiment. John Henry taught Joe Louis how to be selfless, inspiring, and hardworking even in the face of adversity. Both were African American nation-wide heroes that inspired the lives of many and still continue to. No matter what the truth is about John Henry’s existence, his legend will never die.


Version 1: “John Henry” – A Construction Crew Version of the Ballad was gathered by Leon R. Harris in 1909 while he was working on building the Birmingham Power Company’s plant in Birmingham, Alabama. The text of the ballad has an old southern ring to it. While reading it it reminded me of the Uncle Remus stories because of all of the abbreviated words and the southern dialect. The ballad is definitely a lot easier to read than the Uncle Remus stories but there were still words that I had to say out loud to myself in order to figure out what it meant. For example one of the hardest verses for me to understand was, “Cap’n, bet yo’ las’ red cent on me, Fo’ I’ll beat it to th’ bottom or I’ll die. Co’n pone’s in my stomach.” I had to of read it three or four times until I caught on. What I also thought was interesting about this ballad is it’s repetitive qualities; at the end of each stanza it repeats “Lawd, — Lawd, –.” This version also makes the point that Henry’s boss is a white man “…the whitest man on earth.” Because of the interpretation and dialect in this version I would infer that the work crew in Birmingham from which this version was gathered was mostly African American and had heard the tale of John Henry since they were little. This version is more speaks to racial pride and equality. The workers want to portray that no man should put themselves above them and the work they do. Nothing and no one can replace them. Whereas  another version of, “John Henry”- Prison Crew Version of the Ballad  (third variation), was submitted by Edward Douglas whose address was given as the Ohio State Penitentiary. His version was based on interviews with “a number of Old-Timers of this Penitentiary.” The first difference that I noted in this version is that Henry challenges the machine for money rather than pride like in the other version. In this one he does is out of desperation and need, he understands it’s a foolish thing to do he even states that he is aware that he could “…hammer [his] fool self to death,” before he even begins the race. The reason this stuck out to me is because like many people in prison, they are aware that their actions are wrong before they do them but many times they do them anyway because they feel it’s what they must do and that they don’t have a choice even if it means consequences in the end; Henry’s punishment was his death. In this version it seems that John Henry looks at the race this way too.

No matter what the situation is, the tale of John Henry seems to conform to the role that society needs to keep moving forward in society. Whether is for a construction crew or prisoners, John Henry finds a way of inspiring every man and encourages him to be strong even during challenges and adversity.

via John Henry (Folklore Character).

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