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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

John Henry and the Divinity of Labor

Variations in the legend of a steel driving man tell us about differing American views of the value and purpose of work.

“John Henry died from a race with the steam drill during construction of the tunnel for the C&O Railway Co. May God grant that we always respect the great and the strong and be of service to others.” — placard affixed to the John Henry Statue in Talcott, West Virginia, dedicated 1972.

I spent a lot of my twenties living in southeastern West Virginia, where I labored on farms, gardened for rich ladies, painted houses, shoveled snow, and spent two years as a rural social worker. This wasn’t the part of the state with the razed mountaintops that you see in parachute journalists’ Trump Country explainers. The southeastern part looks a lot like the Blue Ridge and competes for the same tourists and transplants. In Monroe County, where I lived, fresh college grads were always showing up from DC or New York, looking to lap at the salt of the Earth. They wanted to plant ginseng, to tend heirloom-breed chickens, to start a farmer’s market (there were already three), to build banjos, to renovate barns into artist retreats. Maybe I disliked them because I saw glimpses of myself. When I was drunk and feeling mean, I’d suggest we all just start an artisan coal mine. You can’t get much closer to the Earth than inside of it.

I lived for a while on a narrow and serpentine road called Dark Hollow. It skittered up a mountain and at the top the trees opened to a suckerpunch view of the ridges to the Southeast. Opposite that view was a mile-long gravel driveway occupied by about a dozen intergenerational hippies. The older ones had come to West Virginia with the back to the land movement in the 1970s, where they bought an old hillside cattle farm and divided it into smaller plots. They built funky cabins and cleared land to plant gardens. The approach was communal, if not utopian, in vision—the simple life of hard, honest labor, of fruits plucked from the land. They resembled the transcendentalists that ran from the industrializing cities a century earlier, like the preacher George Ripley, founder of Brook Farm in Massassachutts, America’s first prominent commune, who famously declared to Emerson in 1840, “I believe in the divinity of labor.” 

It’s easy to believe in things when you know you can change your mind about them, and it’s easy to love labor when you can pivot from it before your body breaks down. When Brook Farm failed after just seven years, George Ripley left for a job at the New York Tribune. Nathaniel Hawthorne, a Brook Farm co-founder, would go on to write that “labor is the curse of the world, and nobody can meddle with it without becoming proportionately brutified.” 

And in West Virginia, by the 2010s many of the back-to-the-landers on Dark Hollow had acquiesced to houses in town and white-collar jobs—they worked as therapists, doctors, school administrators, artists—but on the weekends they still relished doing things the divine way. When the snow got too deep and we had to park down the hill and haul our groceries with sleds, the spirit of it made them giddy. It was contagious, too. One year I resolved to cut all of my own firewood by hand, no chainsaw, before giving up by November and buying a truckload from some rednecks that lived down the hill. 

I spent a lot of time with the old hippies, but I never got to know the downhill neighbors. They were hillbilly blue-collar types, Southern simulacra of my rural Pennsylvania family. They kept too many dogs and burned their trash in fifty-five gallon barrels pocked with vent holes. The only time they’d wave at me is if they were engaged in some physical labor. Like they wanted us poseurs up top to notice them; like they wanted us to respect the strong. Past the rednecks, at the base of the hill, lived an old Black woman who was always talking on her cordless phone from the porch. I didn’t get to know her either but once, when she saw me starting up the long hill on my bike, she put down the phone to laugh at me.  

Alongside the corollary lie that poverty is noble, the slickest trick that’s ever been pulled is convincing people that hard labor is morally instructive, and the lesson is that work is life. 

That was the belief that permeated Dark Hollow from top to bottom, where it spilled onto a little two-lane just a few hundred yards from the Greenbrier River in a town called Alderson. South of Alderson sits Talcott, near the maw of the Great Bend Tunnel, where John Henry might’ve raced the steam drill, and died. 

When I first saw John Henry’s monument I thought he would have made a good linebacker. Over six feet tall, broad-shouldered, and thick-necked, the statue cut a profile remarkably like the John Henry cartoons I watched as a kid. Then I noticed how much he resembled one of these idealized industrial workers from leftist propaganda, which in turn made me consider how he resembled the idealized worker from right-wing propaganda, race notwithstanding. He had rippling forearms, an angular jaw, and a steely expression. If not pride, then self-assuredness. I remembered the old ads for the Works Progress Administration—the New Deal program that conscripted men to build dams and parks, many nearby—that said “Work Promotes Confidence,” as if that’s the purpose and not a side effect. The Civilian Conservation Corps motto was “We can take it!” It being hard and underpaid work. 

If the American right and left have one thing in common, it’s the belief that there’s dignity in work. The area of disagreement is whether it’s dignified to be loyal to your boss, or to your co-workers. Said differently: there may have been a real, historical John Henry, but there are as many John Henry stories as there are beliefs about labor. And we should be careful about the stories we tell. 

In Hinton, just past Talcott, there’s an old white man named Jimmy Costa who specializes in local lore and can play and sing dozens of variations on John Henry songs. Beloved by white hippies and rednecks alike, Jimmy performed at farmer’s markets and folk festivals around the region, where he played fiddle tunes, told corny stories, and sang John Henry songs. But it was another old work song that I remember most, the shoemakers’s ballad Peg and Awl

In eighteen hundred three, peg and awl
In eighteen hundred three, peggin shoes is all I see
I’ma gonna lay me down my awl, my peg and awl

They’ve invented a new machine, peg and awl
They’ve invented a new machine, I peg one shoe it pegs fifteen
I’ma gonna lay me down my awl, my peg and awl.

That shoemaker song always gutted me, probably because it reminded me of the way my dad bounced from factory-to-factory as they shuttered in the mass extinction of the 1990s. Now, I wonder why the shoemaker losing his livelihood cut as deep as John Henry losing his life? One keeps his dignity but dies, the other loses his but lives. The message is clear: Losing your job is a tragedy; dying for it is “service to others.”

Depending on whom you ask, and/or which version of the song you hear, John Henry fought the steam drill in West Virginia, Virginia, Alabama, Arkansas, or even Jamaica. He fought it for one day, or for three days, or for a year and a day. John Henry swung a steel-nosed hammer on a four-foot switch handle. It was nine or ten or twelve pounds, and sometimes he swung one in each hand. His wife was Polly or Pollyann or Lucy. She was loyal and hard working or coquettish and chic, demanding John Henry to work harder in order to shoe her pretty little feet. He died at the entrance of the tunnel, or he lay down with his wife and expired, or he took sick and languished for days. The cause of death was exhaustion, dehydration, cholera, silica dust slicing his lungs, or maybe he just drove so hard he broke his poor heart. Some think that he survived the race, reappearing as Big Bad John, the hero of a 1961 Jimmy Dean song, who gives his life supporting a collapsing coal shaft so that twenty miners can escape. In that telling, he’s on the run from New Orleans after killing a man in a dispute over a Cajun Queen. In more common iterations, John Henry is a freed slave; a Union soldier; just some local boy; a traveling roustabout; an incarcerated member of a chain gang; or some combination thereof. Like always, the chosen details reflect the values of the storyteller. 

According to historian Scott Reynolds Nelson, the real John Henry was a five-foot-one man from New Jersey (middle name: William, age: Twenty) arrested in Virginia for theft (or for being Black) and conscripted into labor on the Lewis Tunnel, not far from Big Bend, where his death, probably from silicosis circa 1872, caused a chain-gang strike. Nelson’s research is compelling. But then again, sociologist Guy B. Johnson wrote that in 1927, he met a man in Talcott who said that as a teenager he’d hauled water at The Big Bend Tunnel, where he had watched a huge dark-skinned man outpace the steam drill. 

There are over a hundred different iterations of John Henry songs, dozens of kids’ books, and at least ten cartoons. Paul Robeson played John Henry in a short-lived musical in 1940 and Roger Aaron Brown played Henry in the 1995 Disney folklore mashup Tall Tale. (Patrick Swayze bizarrely stars as Pecos Bill.) In 1999, Denzel Washington recorded a kids’ audiobook, set to music by BB King, which declares that John Henry was “the mightiest, doggone greatest nation-builder this country has ever seen.” To die for your boss’s greed sucks; to die building a nation is a service to others.

On the more literary end, there’s Colson Whitehead’s 2001 novel John Henry Days, which parallels John Henry narratives with the story of a cynical Black press junketeer, J. Sutter, who visits Talcott for the annual John Henry celebration. While Henry races the steam drill, Sutter seeks to break the record for the most consecutive days attending at least one publicity event. Whitehead’s novel satirizes the press, contemporary masculinity, and America’s fetishization of Black suffering, but John Henry Days ultimately searches for meaning in the various versions of the myth. In the information age, what is the allure of a story as murky as Henry’s? Like Sutter asks his teacher as a young boy, after seeing a John Henry Cartoon: “If he beat the steam engine, why did he have to die? Did he win or lose?”

In 2021, the question is as relevant as ever. 

Many John Henry tellings start with his birth. It was forty-eight hours from evenin’ till morn on that big black night John Henry was born. Or—Ain’t no ordinary baby weighs forty-five pounds. Next comes his, or his mother’s, premonition that a hammer would be the death of him, a pre-destiny that’s a lot less magical than it sounds, because, for example, when a logger from my hometown recently died at work, nobody was surprised. In other versions, the theme is forecast in the opening act. In the version popularized by Johnny Cash, John Henry’s daddy woke him up one midnight. Said before the sheriff comes I wanna tell you. Learn to hoist a jack. And learn to lay a track. And learn to pick and shovel, too. Considering that the historical John Henry may have ended up in West Virginia as part of an incarcerated chain gang—slavery by another name—the notion that picking and shoveling will keep you out of trouble is especially representative of the gap between American myth and reality, especially for people of color. For the managerial classes who claim work is its own reward, they sure do treat it like a punishment. 

John Henry songs descend from two essential traditions—ballad and work song. The work song, a foundation of the blues, is slow and rhythmic, like hammers tapping, and often sends a less heroic message than the ballad. For railroad gandy dancers, and for tunnel diggers, and especially for incarcerated chain-gang workers, the vast majority of whom were Black, John Henry could have been a cautionary song. You work too hard, you break the pace of the team, you break the workers’ code, and you end up dead. His was a story about hubris. One of the earliest transcribed versions, circa 1900, suggests as much:

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.

The bluesy versions, descended from Black work-song tradition, seem in the same breath to respect his strength while lamenting his ego. In Mississippi John Hurt’s version, descended from an iteration first recorded in a Florida prison, the narrator finds John Henry’s hammer at a worksite in East Colorado all painted in red. 

John Henry he left his hammer
Layin’ side of the road, layin’ side of the road, layin’ side of the road.
John Henry he left his hammer
All painted in red, all painted in red, that’s why I’m gone.

The paint, understood to be blood, is how the workers know to recognize Henry’s hammer. It’s not clear whether the hammer is cursed or simply a reminder of the danger of railroad work and the expendability of human labor, but either way, the sight prompts the narrator to quit. This is the hammer that killed John Henry. But it won’t kill me. Take this hammer to the Captain and tell him I’m gone. Tell him I’m gone. 

Henry’s hammer, usually understood as a symbol of sacrifice, takes on new meanings in versions of the song that refuse to valorize that martyred laborer idea. The hammer can be either a curse or a sabot—a reminder of the fate of the Black laborer or a tool to fight against it. Take, for example, verses that folklorist Jim Hauser calls “rebel versions.” Hauser describes the hammer as a tool of agency, pointing to places in the narrative where Henry stands up to low pay and abuse. In one rebel version, collected from a Black brothel in the early 1900s, the steam drill and the captain are essentially interchangeable—

The common verse:

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 rebel verse:

John Henry told his captain one day:
“A man ain’t nothing but a man,
But before I let you beat me down (Or in some: hit me with a strap)
I will die with a hammer in my hand.”

In other depopularized verses, Henry breaks Jim Crow and class codes to openly mock or offer veiled threats to his boss. In this version, recorded in Arkansas, Henry calls his boss “boy” and insinuates a threat of violence—

John Henry said to the Captain,
“Boy, you’d better pray.
For if I miss with my nine pound hammer,
Tomorrow’ll be your buryin’ day, lord, Lord.
Tomorrow’ll be your buryin’ day.”

So who is Henry really in competition with, the steam drill, or the foreman? Does he die to prove his strength or end his exploitation? 

If I had to guess, I’d imagine that the white folks in Talcott who claimed John Henry as their hometown hero liked the upbeat ballad versions best, the ones in which John Henry is martyred against the snapping beak of industrialization. Those were the versions I heard at predominantly white folk festivals, at least. In some of those iterations, the spirit of labor is so powerful that when John Henry dies, Polly takes his hammer and drives that steel just like a man. Sometimes, his victory is so celebrated that his body is taken to the White House and buried in the sand. In these versions, John Henry is unequivocally a hard-working hero, nostalgic and anti-technological even in his own time. But even this version has a darker understory. Scott Reynolds Nelson argues that the white house referenced is not the White House, but instead a reference to the notorious Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond, where John William Henry was imprisoned. In 1993, the bodies of roughly 300 inmates were excavated from unmarked graves on the prison’s grounds.

Local Black laborers, among whom the legend of John Henry first circulated, would have immediately understood the white house reference. But such is buoyant American revisionism—a mass grave becomes a visit to the president’s home; chain-gang servitude becomes a service to a growing nation. The recordings show us the shifting gaze as the legend moves from Black to white audiences. One of the more popular bluegrass versions, played by Ralph Stanley, narrates the opposite reaction to Henry’s death as Mississippi John Hurt’s. Like the characters in Whitehead’s John Henry Days—and like those East Coast grads showing up in West Virginia—the narrator in Stanley’s song sees the Big Bend tunnel as a place to celebrate the divinity of labor. In fact, he can’t wait to arrive. 

People out west heard of John Henry’s death
Couldn’t hardly stay in bed
Monday morning on the east bound train
Going where John Henry’s dead
Going where John Henry’s dead

While the leftist folkies of the 1950s tried to recast Henry as a story of racial and class struggle, the legend seems to have traveled alongside Ralph Stanley over the last half-century. The further we go, the more the work-song message is lost to a moral of American resolve, not of restraint or resistance. Therein lies the problem: Unless the story is told with the same nuance as the Black work songs, unless the legend asks the same questions as Whitehead’s novel, John Henry will continue to be subsumed into the company ideology, a white capitalist belief that for the underclasses work is its own reward. The urge to work, we are told, shines like the light of Christ within us. Nowhere is this clearer than in the spoken-word introduction to Ramblin’ Jack Elliot’s version—

Listen in every heart there burns a flame
For the love of glory or the dread of shame
But oh how happy we would be if we understood
There’s no safety but in doing good.

I left that house in West Virginia years ago, but found myself thinking of it in the spring of 2020, when the U.S. split into essential and remote workers. I’d quit my farm work gigs by then and, working from home, I watched as hazard pay, a hard-won victory of the labor movement, was rebranded as Hero Pay. As if the virtue of bagging groceries, and not the risk of illness, explained a slight wage bump; as if bravery and not economic necessity drove folks back to work. (In some John Henry versions, he only works in the tunnel because of his kids’ medical debts.) 

From my sofa, I watched those videos taken from cul-de-sacs as predominantly white remote workers stood outside in the morning chill to applaud nurses and store clerks leaving for work. Posting those videos on Instagram, they might as well have been on that eastbound train. Meanwhile, grocery store clerks traded blows with maskless shoppers and nurses posted videos of themselves wearing trash bags. When they begged for more PPE, the president accused them of theft. 

Safe in my apartment, on my sofa, on my screen, I watched the horror unfold and began listening to old folk songs on loop. In the middle of one blip in the long arc of history, I’d wanted to look back towards others. But legends by nature substitute one kind of truth for another—they reflect heritage, not history. Legends tell us what we want to believe about ourselves and our goodness. It’s always worth repeating: we are, in many ways, the stories we tell, and I wonder which stories of labor during the pandemic will pass into legend. In the public parks and subway stops and hospitals, what will the placards read: Before I let that old steam drill beat me down, I’ll die with my hammer in my hand? 

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