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John Henry (folklore)

"John Henry was a steel driving man".

An African-American folk hero, John Henry has been the subject of numerous songs, stories, plays and novels. Like other "Big Men" (Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, Iron John[?]), John Henry was a mythic representation of a particular group within the melting pot of the 19th century working class. In the most popular story of his life, Henry is born into the world big, mean and strong as ten men. He grows to be one of the greatest "steel-drivers" in the mid-century push to extend the railroads across the mountains to the west. The complication of the story is that, in order to save money, the owner of the railroad buys a steam-powered hammer to do the work of his mostly black driving crew. In a bid to save his job, and the jobs of his men, John Henry challenges the inventor to a contest: John Henry VS. the Steam-Hammer. John defeats the Steam-Hammer in driving spikes, but in the process he suffers a heart attack and dies a martyr.

The story of John Henry was re-worked in a comic song[?] by the songwriting duo The Smothers Brothers. In their version, John Henry takes on the Steam-Hammer and is narrowly defeated, but ends saying 'I'm gonna get me a steam-hammer too!'

While he was probably not a real character, Henry became an important symbol of the working man. Particularly important was his rejection of the classic "work ethic" so popular in the 19th century (and even today). The basic claim of the legend is that, even if you are the greatest worker that ever lived, management remains ambivalent to your health and well-being. They worked John Henry to death, and then replaced his men with a machine anyway. Because of this message, the legend of John Henry has been a staple of leftist politics, labor organizing and American counter-culture for well over one hundred years.



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