The Legend of John Henry
James Collins moved around a lot prior to college, living between Texas, New York, and New Hampshire. His family was from Texas, and he identifies as a Texan. He is currently a student at the University of Southern California.
“The story is about men building a railroad. John Henry is this massive dude, like six foot seven, and he was the best at building railroads, at railing stakes into the ground, um, like, putting the nails and pins into the boards, and connecting the iron pieces into the boards. And he was the best at driving in the pins of the train tracks. But one day, a rich dude comes along, and he says ‘I have the most fantabulous, wonderful machine: it is a track layer. It lays track in front of the machine, and hammers them in as it goes along. And I am willing to bet you, John Henry, that I can drill through that mountain, and lay track through that mountain, quicker than you can lay track down through that mountain.’ Keep in mind John Henry has to knock down, like, make a cave as he’s going, lay down track, and pin the track into the ground – he’s got a lot to do for one guy, but John Henry says ‘I’m gonna take you on.’ So, they start going off. Initially John Henry has a huge lead, he’s just, he has this massive hammer, he’s swinging it into the mountain, he’s digging a tunnel, essentially, with the hammer. Like, knocking it down, laying track, pinning the track into the ground. And he does this for a while and he’s side by side with the, um, with the automatic rail layer. And the guy managing the machine is like, ‘I’m gonna catch up to you, I’m gonna catch up to you, I’m gonna catch up to you.’ Eventually the guy starts to catch up to him, and John Henry is in trouble. And, he’s getting tired, he’s slowing down. But um, the rail layer keeps catching up, catching up and eventually it overtakes him. John Henry has been struggling, he’s been smashing his hammer into a mountain, digging his way through a mountain as a one man team for, you know, hours on end. And, when it’s getting close to the end, he’s struggling but he manages one second final wind, and he’s pushing through, pushing through, catches up to the rail layer, and breaks through the other side of the mountain. He hammers down his final pin, hammers down his final track, and falls over, dead. But he won, he beat the rail layer.”
Informant’s Background Knowledge and Relationship with this Piece:
James believes there may also be a component of jobs, some kind of wager that John Henry made that if he won then his other workers could keep their job. He doesn’t know where he learned it, but likes it because he feels like it is an authentically American story. He believes that the legend began among the African American rail worker community.
Thoughts About the Piece:
I’ve heard the story of John Henry before from a Disney Short Film. However, in the version I watched I remember the other rail workers laying the track for John Henry while he hammered in the nails. I also definitely remember John Henry making a deal with the owner of the automatic rail layer which involved allowing all the other rail workers to keep their jobs if he could beat the machine, which he did. I think that that is a very critical component to the story and I find it interesting that James chose to omit it, although he later mentioned that there might have been some employment aspect to the story.