John Henry | Song, Background, & Facts | Britannica

John Henry

folk hero
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John Henry, hero of a widely sung African American folk ballad. It describes his contest with a steam drill, in which John Henry crushed more rock than did the machine but died “with his hammer in his hand.” Writers and artists see in John Henry a symbol of the worker’s foredoomed struggle against the machine and of the Black man’s tragic subjugation to and defiance of white oppression.

Some factual basis exists for the ballad of John Henry. When the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad drove the Big Bend Tunnel through the Allegheny Mountains in West Virginia, from 1870 to 1873, steel drivers hammered steel drills into the rock to make holes into which to pack explosives. The modern steam drill was introduced into the South in 1870; hence, it is possible that the comparative efficiency of the two methods could have been tested at Big Bend.

Although there were songs about John Henry, there were few stories of him, and, like Paul Bunyan, he is not truly a folk hero. The imaginative treatment by Roark Bradford in John Henry (1931) made the name known to many Americans. John Henry has been depicted in numerous works of art and has inspired film and television plots, but the story remains largely told in song, with versions recorded by folk, blues, and country artists.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica This article was most recently revised and updated by Patricia Bauer, Assistant Editor.
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