In the folksong “John Henry,” John is a railroad worker who makes a promise to beat a steam powered drill by digging with his own two hands and his hammer. He says, “A man ain’t nothing but a man, before I let your steam drill beat me down, I’ll die with a hammer in my hand.” As the story goes, John indeed beats the steam powered drill in a competition just as he promised. He also drops dead with his hammer in his hand…just like he promised!
Men swinging hammers, and later steam drills, were used in the 1800s to break through rocks to build America’s railroads. Like the John Henry in the song, thousands of men worked to build our railroads. Those men also died by the thousands from the tough physical labor and the dust that clogged their lungs. Those men sang songs to help them keep up a steady rhythm of hammering. One of those songs is “John Henry.” The song tells their story.
The author of this book set out to find out if there ever really was a man named John Henry. Was he just a legend, like Paul Bunyan? Was there any truth in the song? He traced many different versions of the John Henry song over time. He compared the lyrics to what was going on in railroad history and he uncovered the amazing and heartbreaking story of the men who made America’s railroads. The John Henry song tells the story of a man, but it also symbolizes all the men, especially African-American, Chinese-American & Irish-American men who literally worked themselves to death. It makes you wonder, why didn’t they quit? Many of the men were prisoners in state prisons loaned out to the railroad to do heavy labor. The rest were extremely poor and and had little choice but to accept this kind of work if they hoped to feed their families. Author: Scott Reynolds
Listen to this recording of men singing “John Henry”:
Simthsonian Audio of men working and singing “John Henry” (1947-1948)
Can’t you imagine yourself swinging a hammer to the rhythm? The work would be hot and back breaking. It would be hard to breathe. You can hear some of the hopelessness and sorrow in the voices too. Look at some pictures from the book:
Photo Slide Show from Ain’t Nothing But a Man
Here is a real picture of a man working in what would become a railroad tunnel big enough for a train to go through. You can look at more photos like this one from American Memory: History of the American West 1860-1920. This one is from the Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library. It looks like lonely hard work in the tunnel.
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