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Intro

In a Nutshell

Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, and John Henry: legendary figures with larger than life exploits. But there’s one big difference between them: John Henry may have been real. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the steel-driving railroad man actually lived and that he did die in a triumphant race against a machine.

Unfortunately, the details are a bit sketchy. Some say Henry was a former slave; others say he was a free black from New Jersey (we can’t imagine why he left). Some believe he raced a steam drill in Virginia; others argue that the contest occurred in Alabama. Some place the events in 1870; others argue that the race occurred during the 1880s.

So what’s the truth? If John Henry was real, exactly who was he, and where and when did he take on a machine? And whether real or fictitious, why would people care enough to turn his deadly contest into a song?

About the Song

ArtistWoody Guthrie Musician(s)Woody Guthrie (vocals, guitar), Cisco Houston (vocals, guitar)
Album
Year1944-45
LabelSmithsonian Folkways
Writer(s)Unknown (Traditional)
Producer(s)Moses Asch
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Shmoop Connections

Explore the ways this song connects with the world and with other topics on Shmoop
The legend of John Henry emerged during the heyday of Southern railroad construction in the decades following the Civil War. The legend, therefore, draws in part from the history of America’s railroads. The first real chapter in this history was written during the 1860s when Congress authorized the construction of a federally subsidized transcontinental railroad. But another important chapter was written in the South following the Civil War. During Reconstruction, progressive Southerners resolved to modernize their economy and become full partners within the national market by building railroads.

Many of the laborers on these railroads were white. Often dissatisfied with the pace and pay of railroad work, they participated in the major labor struggles of the late nineteenth century. The strikes on the railroads were among the most violent in American history; in 1877 and 1894, these strikes caused massive property damages and led to many deaths. Generally, the workers lost, but they learned valuable lessons in labor organization. And the severity of the strikes led middle-class reformers to promote federal legislation that would protect the rights of workers during the Progressive Era.

White labor organizers weren’t the only ones working on the railroad all the livelong day, though. Recently freed slaves also found work on the Southern railroads. The work was backbreaking, but for many it was preferable to the most common alternative: sharecropping. Most former slaves found work initially on the very land that they had worked as slaves. While technically free, they often found themselves stuck within a cycle of debt that was could be as demoralizing as slavery. It’s possible that the real John Henry was a former slave looking to break that cycle by showing how hard he could drive that steel.
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