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Some said he's born down in Texas.
Some said he's born up in Maine.
I just say he was a Louisiana man
John Henry's birthplace is shrouded in mystery.
As with many legendary figures, John Henry's birthplace is uncertain. Historian Scott Reynolds Nelson argues that the real John Henry was born in New Jersey and made his way to the South—and eventually the railroad construction camps of West Virginia—as a Union soldier during the Civil War.
A second scholar has argued that John Henry was born a slave near Crystal Springs, Mississippi, in 1844. After the Civil War, the freeman went to work on the Columbus and Western Railway being built between Columbus, Georgia, and Birmingham, Alabama. According to this historian, John Henry found employment on the line because the project engineer was the son of his former master.
Part of John Henry's appeal may lie in these biographical uncertainties, though. The mystery surrounding the legend's life allows many states to claim to the steel-driving hero as their own. You know those states—always trying to lay a claim on someone else's railroad worker.
"Well," the captain said to John Henry
This "captain" may have been former Confederate officer Frederick Yeamans Dabney.
Amateur historian John Garst has argued that the "captain" was actually Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney, a former Confederate officer who later became employed as Chief Engineer for the Columbus & Western Railway Company.
Dabney and his extended family owned a large plantation near Crystal Springs, Mississippi. According to Garst, many of the employees Dabney recruited to help build the railroad were former slaves who were previously owned by his father and uncle. Plantation records reveal that one of these slaves, born in 1844, was named Henry.
I'm gonna bring my steam drill around
The first steam-powered drills were attractive but imperfect pieces of technology.
Railroad construction companies initially welcomed the introduction of steam-powered drills in the middle of the 19th century. Steel drivers and shakers could work only so fast; the steam-driven machine promised to bore through rocky mountain—and later, the Rocky Mountains—far more efficiently.
But the first prototypes were far from perfect, as they were mechanically unreliable and awkward to use. More than 100 patents were subsequently issued between 1850 and 1875 to inventors trying to perfect the new technology. The battle between John Henry and the steam drill occurred as manufacturers were trying to prove the machine's value.
After 1870, new models were developed that were more portable and could therefore drill in multiple directions. Demonstrations were set up by drill company representatives in railroad construction camps, and according to the legend of John Henry, at least one demonstration grew into a deadly contest.
John Henry said to his Shaker,
"Shaker you had better pray.
If you miss your six feet of steel
Tomorrow'll be your buryin' day day day!"
John Henry offers his shaker some life-saving advice in this line.
This line can be confusing, but it's really saying something pretty simple: If you don't keep your hands steady, I'm going to crush your skull.
Steel drivers like John Henry always worked with a partner—called a shaker—who held the steel spike that the driver hammered into the rock. These spikes of various lengths and widths bore holes that were later packed with explosives. The shaker didn't simply hold the spike, though; he also turned it in between hammer-strokes in order to keep the spike from getting stuck in the rock.
The shaker had to have enormous confidence in his driver. If the driver missed with his nine to fourteen-pound maul, he could easily break the shaker's hand—or worse. Consequently, the advice John Henry gives his shaker makes sense. You better pray that I don't lose my aim. If I do, and miss the steel pike, my hammer may send you to your grave.
Another interpretation of the line is slightly more morbid. John Henry was known to be extremely proud and highly competitive. Why else would he challenge a machine to a steel-driving contest? Some take this line to be a warning from Henry to his shaker, not that he might kill him by accident if he isn't careful, but that he might kill him on purpose if he doesn't do his job properly and they lose. Those are some big stakes (pun intended).
They took John Henry to the graveyard,
Laid him down in the sand.
Every locomotive comin' a-rolling by hollered,
"Yonder lays a steel-drivin' man man man!"
One version of this song actually replaces the "graveyard" line with one where John Henry is taken to the White House. Why would they take a dead steel driver to the home of the president?
Historian Scott Reynolds Nelson says that this line provided the case-breaking clue in his hunt for the real John Henry. Previous analysts had puzzled over this seeming reference to the president home in Washington, D.C., and some folk singers had chosen to change the line to avoid confusion.
Nelson, however, realized that the building at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue wasn't labeled the "White House" until the 20th century, long after John Henry's death. He began looking for another "white house," and he quickly found one: the whitewashed state penitentiary in Richmond, Virginia.
This discovery led Nelson to the archives of the old prison, where he found a prisoner named John Henry who'd been leased out to work on the C&O Railway around 1870. Moreover, Nelson discovered that Henry had been assigned to a crew digging the tunnel through Lewis Mountain. If John Henry had been a convict working on a railroad chain gang at the time of his death, he naturally would have been sent back to the prison to be buried, where he would hear the train a comin' for all eternity.