This ballad tells the story of John Henry, an American folk hero. According to legend, he was the strongest and fastest railroad workers in his day during the post-Civil War era. In the late 1800's, the steam drill was invented to replace the men who pounded spikes into the hard rock so that sticks of dynamite could be placed in mountain faces to blast out a tunnel. In protest, John Henry vowed that before "I let a steam drill beat me down, I'm gonna die with a hammer in my hand." In the race of Man against Machine, John Henry won, but he "hammered so hard that he broke his heart."
Steel Drivin' Man
John's job was extremely difficult and dangerous. Imagine lifting a 10-pound sheep-nose hammer with a four foot long handle high above your head and slamming it down with all your might on a steel spike placed against a mountain side. He would stand about six feet from the spike and strike it with the full length of his hammer to drive it into into the solid rock. Each time he heaved the massive 10 pound mallet down, the "shaker" would turn the steel spike so each blow would send it deeper into the rock. The shaker would sing steady tunes to help John keep a rhythm with his striking hammer. Some say John Henry could drive the spikes into the ground for 10 hours without stopping.
Dynamite sticks were then placed in the holes to blast through the mountains to make rough tunnels for the railroad to go through. Many men died from falling rock, cave-ins, and suffocation working deep into the mountains. While the terrible conditions took many lives, John Henry endured them. He was one of the hardest working and strongest rail workers of the time.
By the late 1800's, the Industrial Era had arrived and the men who worked on the railroad were being replaced by more machines each year. When John Henry raced against the steam drill, his 6 foot, 200 pound body used every ounce of energy to prove he could not be outdone by a machine. Sadly, the amazing John Henry had expended all his energy and might. He died a "steel drivin' man."
History professor Scott Reynolds Nelson of the College of William and Mary in Virginia claims that John Henry of the ballad was based on an actual man named John William Henry. He was a freeman from the North who perhaps tried to find work after the Civil War. Somehow he ended up as a prisoner in the Virginia prison system to work as a steel driver. To learn more, read Prof. Nelson's book, Steel drivin' man: John Henry, the untold story of an American legend.
Illustration and animation: Mike Hoey
Music Director: Scott Lloyd Shelly
Vocals: Richard Buckner, Melanie Clarin, Alex Liu, Stephanie Rogan
Audio engineer and post-production: Music Annex, Charlie Albert
Boni, Margaret Bradford, Fireside Book of Folk Songs, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1947.
Cohn, Amy L., From Sea to Shining Sea, New York: Scholastic, 1993.
Downes, Olin and Elie Siegmeister, A Treasury of American Song, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1940.
Krull, Kathleen, Gonna Sing My Head Off!, New York: Alfred A. Knopf , 1992.
Lomax, Alan, The Folk Songs of North America, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1960.
Lomax, John and Alan Lomax, Folk Song U.S.A., New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1964.
Nelson, Scott Reynolds, Steel Drivin' Man. New York: Oxford Universit Press, 2006.
Copyright _ 1994, 2013 Lisa G. Liu. A print out of this text for personal use is permitted; any reproduction of this text either electronically or on paper for any other purpose without written permission is prohibited.