How a folk hero inspired one of the most covered songs in American history.
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.Continue reading “A History of American Protest Music: This Is the Hammer That Killed John Henry”