Said to have been born with a hammer in his hands, John Henry became an American folk hero just as fast as he could drill through a mountainside. And that, according to legend, was very fast.
Truth or tall tale (see Tall Tales box, below right), the John Henry story has been told for more than a hundred years. Many historians believe it is based, in part, on a real person and event in the late 1800s.
As a freed slave following the Civil War, Henry became an icon because of his strength and determination. His strong work ethic was not only an example to African-Americans, but also to every workingman.
Henry was among the thousands of "steel-drivin' men" who built the railroads. They used large hammers and steel stakes to pound holes into rock. The holes were filled with explosives that would blast through rough terrain and mountainsides to make way for new railroad tracks. The work was hard and slow.
When the first steam drills were introduced to railroad work, the role of the steel-drivin' men was challenged. "People were fixated with the drill," says Scott Nelson, a history professor at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. "In the South, mountains stood in the way of railroads and prevented access to the West. But when the steam drill was introduced, its newness was gripping and interesting."
But the drill would be used to replace the men who had been doing the job. Companies felt that the drill would be faster and cheaper. When the railroad company Henry worked for proposed using the steam drill to replace the steel-drivin' men, Henry challenged the drill. He was sure he could beat it. And he did.
Although Henry has been claimed by several states, some historians think he may have competed against the drill at the Great Bend Tunnel in Talcott, W.Va., in 1872. John "Bill" Dillon, a historian who lives in Talcott, says the purpose of the competition was to see who could get through the mountain the fastest.
"The drill drove one nine-foot hole, but John Henry drove two seven-foot holes," he says. "Well, [compare] 14 feet to nine feet, and you know who was faster."
According to the tale, Henry died with a hammer in his hand moments after winning the contest. It's an image that was turned into a number offolk songs in the years that followed the event.
The popularity of Henry's folklore grew in the 1900s. To date, there are more than 400 recordings of the John Henry story, making it one of the most popular American folk songs. Mr. Nelson has more than 80 versions on his MP3 player. One of his favorite versions is by Leadbelly, an influential blues singer and guitarist during the 1930s and '40s.
But other recording artists - such as Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, and Burl Ives - have also recorded a version of the John Henry story.
Nelson says that the popularity of the songs grew at public schools during the 1950s and '60s. "It's easy to sing," he says, "and 'John Henry' was a perfect song for teaching music in the classroom."
The message of the John Henry story is that people can accomplish anything they set their mind to. That's why his story has been retold in dozens of movies and books. There's even a John Henry museum and a July festival, "John Henry Days," in Hinton, W.Va., near Mr. Dillon's hometown.
So, is the story of John Henry true? Nelson and Dillon believe parts of it are.
"Was he born with a hammer in his hand?" Dillon says. "No. But I believe he beat that drill. And I believe he died after he won. I stick with those facts."
Nelson's book, "Steel-Drivin' Man: John Henry and the Untold Story of an American Legend," will be published this fall. He thinks that the John Henry story can continue to inspire people today.
Do you think you could rope a tornado or jump over a mountaintop in a single leap? You could if you were a character in a tall tale. Tall tales are stories in which the characters and their actions and adventures are exaggerated and entertaining.
Many American tall tales grew out of specific regions of the country. Pecos Bill and his rattlesnake whip, for example, were to cowboys in the West what Paul Bunyan and his giant blue ox were to lumberjacks in the Midwest. And in the South, John Henry was the quintessential "workingman's man" on the railroad.
"Tall tales make the impossible possible," says Scott Nelson. "They represent the Superman character that defines the best a man can do. They're the Marvel Comics' characters of today - like Captain America or Spiderman."
Indeed, tall tales have been a popular form of entertainment for hundreds of years, and they may change a little each time they're told.
The captain says to John Henry,
"Believe my tunnel's fallin' in."
"Captain, you needn't not to worry,
Just my hammer hawsing in the wind,
Just my hammer hawsing in the wind."
"Look away over yonder, captain,
You can't see like me."
He hollered out in a low, lonesome cry,
"This hammer'll be the death of me,
Lord, this hammer'll be the death of me."
John Henry told his captain,
"Captain, you go to town,
Bring John back a 12-pound hammer,
And he'll whup your steam drill down,
[And] he'll whup your steam drill down."
For the man that invented that steam drill
Thought he was mighty fine;
John Henry sunk a fo'teen foot,
The steam drill only made nine,
The steam drill only made nine.
Excerpt from 'John Henry Blues,' performed by Fiddlin' John Carson. Transcribed by Norm Cohen in 'Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong' (University of Illinois Press).