Tom Maxwell | Longreads | October 2017 | 10 minutes (2,465 words)

They point with pride to the roads you built for them,

They ride in comfort over the rails you laid for them.

They put hammers in your hands

And said – Drive so much before sundown.

—Sterling Brown, “Strong Men” (1931)

In the folktale, a powerful black steel-driving man named John Henry challenges the steam drill to a race, beats it, and dies. In some versions, John Henry is almost seven feet tall. In others, he wears fine clothes and commands any price for his work. In our national consciousness, he stands for the common man, beaten by industrialization, but unbowed.

Songs about John Henry became popular in the early 20th century. He is a folk hero in all—by resisting either the dehumanizing effects of technology or a racist power structure. His story helped give rise to an iconic American “blues ballad” as well as the “hammer song:” a rhythmic style which helped synchronize the work of manual laborers on railroads, prison work farms, and logging camps. Each axe or hammer blow rang out in rhythm to the tune, and as the tempo of that industrialized century increased, this would ultimately become the backbeat of rock and roll.

By 1915, various versions of “The Ballad of John Henry” were known all over the South. As in all ballads, the story is a tragedy. As a child, John Henry foretells his death. As an adult, he climbs upon the mountain that will claim his life and despairs. He dies heroically and without complaint, asking only for a drink of cold water. Given that the song was communicated orally, there are as many verses as performers. Suffice to say that John Henry, and the ballad he inspired, is American through-and-through: he is a powerful man beaten by the system.

John Henry said to the captain

A man ain’t nothing but a man

Before I let that steam drill beat me down

I will die with a hammer in my hand

“The Ballad of John Henry” is one of the most famous “blues ballads;” that is, European narrative song tradition blended with African-American musical styles. It’s little wonder that he was made to represent a diversity of viewpoints and agenda. “The Ballad of John Henry” has become one of the most covered folk songs in American history.

Folklorists long suspected that John Henry was a real person, but since folk heroes belong to everyone, the man remained obscured by the myth. States all over the South claimed him, as did railroad workers and coal miners. The most convincing evidence of John Henry’s existence was provided relatively recently by historian Scott Reynolds Nelson in his 2006 book Steel-Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend. In it, we meet John William Henry, a black man from New Jersey who found work for the Union Army just after the Civil War at City Point, Virginia. It’s unclear exactly when Henry was arrested for stealing from a grocery store, but he entered Richmond Jail as an 18-year-old on April 26,1866. Though at least one observer noted that it was unclear that Henry received a fair trial, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and sent to the notorious Virginia State Penitentiary in November as prisoner 497. From there, he was leased to work hard labor on a railroad for twenty-five cents a day.

The company that the Virginia State Penitentiary leased its prisoners to was a meat grinder known as the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. Led by Collis P. Huntington, the C.&O. was in a race to connect Virginia’s James River and Ohio River valleys. To do this, more than a dozen tunnels had to be built in the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia—four and a half miles, blasted through solid rock. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Irish immigrants, free blacks, and convicts lost their lives in the process. In one year alone, between September 1871 and September 1872, the Virginia State Penitentiary lost almost 400 prisoners to the construction of the Big Bend section. “Negroes who died at Big Bend hailed from nowhere and had not been christened,” one authority observed. “It was easy not to notice when such men were used up and cast aside.”

Most of the workers on the Big Bend tunnel were black. “They are preferred,” noted an 1872 article in the Richmond Dispatch, “because you can cuss a nigger, but whenever an attempt is made to abuse a white, there is a row.”

According to Scott Reynolds Nelson, John William Henry was employed in an even more monstrous place, the nearby Lewis Tunnel. Henry was a hammer man, who worked with a partner to drive spikes into the rock, making a space for sticks of dynamite to be set. It took six such teams, working twelve-hour shifts, to make enough holes for one blast—advancing the tunnel by only ten feet. Being scarcely over five feet tall, John William Henry was just the right size for this kind of work.

Because John Henry was a prisoner, he and his colleagues could be forced to work in conditions which others refused; namely, to be pushed back into a tunnel filled with fine dust from a dynamite blast, and to work alongside dangerous early steam drills. (Huntington had earlier used Chinese indentured laborers on another project for the same reason.) In the 1870s, there was no competition between hammer crews and steam drills on either account — on the one hand, steam drills were unreliable and often broke down, and so were easily outpaced by a well-coordinated team. On the other hand, steam drills produced high volumes of silicon dust, which caused silicosis (or “tunnel fever”), a quick and almost certainly fatal lung disease. This is how Scott Reynolds Nelson believes John Henry died, along with hundreds of his fellow workers.

It’s unsurprising, given the reliably inhuman nature of Reconstruction in the South, that the C.&O. hired a number of ex-Confederates as “captains,” or overseers. One such man, Claiborne R. Mason, was hated by both black and white—the former for his ability to capture runaway slaves, and the latter for his brutal suppression of Confederate desertions. Even though free black workers could and did strike for better pay, there is no doubt that the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad was a racist enterprise, and the Virginia State Penitentiary a willing collaborator.

In 1873, John William Henry disappears from the Virginia State Penitentiary records. Had he been paroled, pardoned, or released, it would have been noted. Instead, argues Scott Reynolds Nelson, it’s probable that he died. His body would have been sent back to the prison that leased him (because the C.&O. was contractually obligated to pay $100 “for each prisoner not returned”), buried in an anonymous mass grave on penitentiary grounds, and forgotten.

Forgotten except in song.

Given the fact that John Henry was black, probably a convict, and existed in the unrelieved racism of Reconstruction-era South, the first people to sing about him were almost certainly African Americans. And so there is a hidden history to “The Ballad of John Henry,” in which the protagonist demands to be treated like a man, not a slave, and who may very well have murdered some of his white overseers. A slight but telling version of the lyric quoted above—one which circulated privately in the black community—goes like this:

John Henry told his captain,

A man ain’t nothing but a man

Before I’d let you beat me down

I’d die with the hammer in my hand

Researcher Jim Hauser has collected dozens of such variations—what he calls the “rebel versions” of John Henry’s ballad—which suggest the man was originally a symbol of resistance. This John Henry refuses to be whipped or worked to death. He is willing to quit his job for better wages.

Fiddlin’ John Carson’s “John Henry Blues” from March, 1924—the earliest recorded version we have—doesn’t mention race at all.

Mississippi John Hurt’s “Spike Driver Blues” from 1928 is much more explicit.

This is the hammer that killed John Henry

But it won’t kill me

John Henry he left this hammer

All over in red

That’s why I’m gone

John Henry was a steel drivin’ boy

But he went down

That’s why I’m gone

Even though these messages are slightly disguised, there can be little wonder what John Henry meant by dying with his hammer in his hand, or why he left his hammer “all over in red.” He rebelled against his oppressors, possibly violently, and was killed. There could be no better candidate for an African American hero during the days of Jim Crow than this: A man, who, if nothing else, will defy his overseer and die like a man.

Whether as hero or slave, a guaranteed early death doesn’t work for everyone. John Henry’s situation was lose/lose, and there were those who would have none of it. Note the first verse of “Spike Driver Blues”:

Take this hammer and carry it to the captain

Tell him I’m gone

Tell him I’m gone

Tell him I’m gone

And so we have a storied variant of the John Henry song lineage: “Take This Hammer.” Its protagonist is decidedly against becoming either a martyr or murder victim. Versions of this song were documented as early as 1910.

“This song had its origin in the Big Ben [sic] tunnel in West Virginia,” reported Harvey Harward, quoted at length in 1928’s “American Negro Folk-Songs.”

John Henry was a laborer in this tunnel and became famous on account of the great amount of work he could do in one day. It is claimed he could do the work of six ordinary men in one day. He died while on duty, this giving rise to the thought that work killed him.

The men who were heard to sing the song were railroad workers, post drivers, and a construction gang. They worked as a team, and used the song to synchronize their labor.

Folk icon Lead Belly, who served time at both Texas’s Central Unit Prison and Louisiana’s Angola Prison, recorded “Take This Hammer” in 1940. “Every time the men say ‘haah’,” Lead Belly explains in his spoken introduction, “The hammer falls. The hammer rings, and we swing, and we sing.”

If he asks you was I runnin’

You tell him I was flyin’

If he asks you was I laughin’

You tell him I was cryin’

Even when inmates sang “John Henry” as a work song, the tempo was slowed. John Henry, to these men, was not so much an example as a caution. There is no mention of a noble race against a machine; only the danger of being worked to death.

In 1978, folklorist Alan Lomax filmed former Parchman inmates reenacting “Take This Hammer” as a work song, using their hoes as accompaniment:

See how they strike the ground on the second and fourth beats of the measure, just like a snare drum in a rock song.

Over a hundred years earlier, back in the mile-long Lewis Tunnel on the C.&O. Railroad in 1872, the behemoth steam drills could only address the rock from one angle, and were thus woefully inefficient. John Henry and the other hammer men worked with a partner known as a shaker, who held a chisel-like drill. The shaker would twist and turn the drill to optimize each blow of the sledgehammer. This was known as “rocking and rolling,” and thus did two act as one, and so, no matter how incremental, was progress made.

Read part two of “Hammer Songs.”

Read more from Tom Maxwell’s History of American Protest Music.


Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Mark Armstrong; Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel