John Henry, a mighty laborer who outperformed a mechanical drill, is a character who first appeared in African American songs and ballads. He can be seen as a symbol of black strength and of African Americans' refusal to be crushed. In more general terms, John Henry also represents the human will and spirit, which a machine may defeat but can never duplicate.
The character of John Henry sometimes receives the kind of exaggerated treatment given to other larger-than-life figures such as Paul Bunyan. For example, John Henry is said to have weighed 44 pounds at birth and to have gone looking for work after his first meal.
His story is linked to the spread of railroads across the United States as the Industrial Age got into full swing in the years after the American Civil War (1861-1865). John Henry became a "steel-drivin' man," someone who swung a heavy hammer at a steel drill, driving it into rock to make railway tunnels through hills and mountains. The Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad drove the Big Bend Tunnel through West Virginia's Allegheny Mountains in the early 1870s, and legend places John Henry there.
All versions of the story agree that John Henry was the strongest and best hammerer of all, a man who wanted to be buried with his hammer in his hand. Then the railway company found a steam-powered drill that it claimed could work faster and better than even John Henry The "steel-drivin' man" entered a contest with the drill, working until he was exhausted and ready to fall. In the words of one song:
The man that invented the steam drill
Thought he was mighty fine.
John Henry drove his fifteen feet,
And the steam drill only made nine.
John Henry beat the steam drill in that contest, but the victory was a costly one. He "died with his hammer in his hand," say some accounts, while others claim that he died that night in his bed, worn and broken from the strain of the contest.
See also Bunyan, Paul .