“John Henry was hammering on the right side,
The big steam drill on the left,
Before that steam drill could beat him down,
He hammered his fool self to death.”
—stanza 7 from one of the earliest written copies of the John Henry ballad,
prepared by a W. T. Blankenship and published about 1900.
He’s an American folk hero, the subject of numerous songs, stories, plays, and novels. The legend of John Henry began in Big Bend Tunnel, in Summers County, WV, which CSX Railroad still uses today. He was the best steel-drivin’ man to ever grace the mountains of West Virginia, say the songs, working on the largest tunneling project in American history at the time.
That John Henry lived seems beyond doubt. That he drove steel in Great Bend Tunnel (as it was then called) in the early 1870’s seems certain. That he drove steel against a steam drill and beat it seems likely. That he died from over exertion in the contest seems somewhat less likely, if eyewitnesses are to be believed.
Mrs. C.L. Lynn of Rome, GA, sent her copy of the Blankenship songsheet quoted above to Guy B. Johnson, of the University of North Carolina, in the mid 1920s when he was collecting research for his forthcoming “John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend.“ Johnson’s 1929 work was the first published book-length study of John Henry and the John Henry legend.
Johnson spent four days in Talcott, WV in June 1927 interviewing still-living men who were likely to have seen the event with their own eyes. Mr. C.S. (Neal) Miller told him “Now some people say John Henry died because of this test. But he didn’t. At least, he didn’t drop dead. As well as I remember, though, he took sick and died from fever soon after that.
“I came here when I was seventeen,” said Mr. Miller, “It was the spring of 1869. In the fall of that year I began work at Big Bend. I carried water and steel for the gang of drivers at the east end. I would take the drills to the shop and bring them back after they were sharpened. I often saw John Henry, as he was on the gang that I carried water and drills for.”
Folk historian Dr. Louis Chappell of West Virginia University had also interviewed Miller about the John Henry story, two years earlier. But his book, “John Henry, a Folk Lore Study,” didn’t make it to press till 1933. Neal Miller had told Chappell, “he didn’t die from getting too hot in the contest . . . The boys around the tunnel told me he was later killed in the tunnel . . .” And a D.R. Gilpin said, “The last time I saw John Henry was when some rocks from a blast fell on him. I always thought he died in the tunnel.”
Now, Guy Johnson was a highly respected scholar who had co-authored several works on African American song, but a bit of controversy surrounds his work with John Henry, as Chappell was quick to point out.
According to Chappell, Johnson at first thought that the character of John Henry was totally mythological, and that he may have hailed from Georgia or the Carolinas. After Chappell’s work began to circulate in unpublished form, prior to 1929, Johnson took up Chappell’s position for his study, without crediting Chappell.
Many rare book collectors today feel Chappell produced the superior work, which easily brings $250 a copy in the rare book market. Chappell’s work was much more thorough than Johnson’s, drawing on many contemporary newspapers, scientific journals, treatises on tunneling, and reports from the construction of other tunnels, as well as on the oral and written reports from his many informants. Chappell wrote with more conviction than Johnson about the certainty that John Henry was a real person and not just a legend.
sources: John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend, by Guy Benton Johnson. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1929)
John Henry, A Folk-Lore Study, by Louis W. Chappell, (Jena, Germany: Frommannsche Verlag, Walter Biedermann, 1933)