The Ballad of John Henry was an Afro-American folk song dating back to the late 1800s. The song tells of a man who worked as a steel driver when the railroads were being built across Western America. John was so good at his job, that he was put up against a steam powered hammer in a race to see who would complete the job faster. In the end, John Henry is victorious. But the celebrations are short lived as he dies of exhaustion directly after claiming victory. It has been determined that John Henry was an actual man who worked on the railroads and died with a hammer in his hand. Whether this race actually took place is up for debate.
The lyrics to The Ballad of John Henry are as follows:
When John Henry was a little tiny baby
Sitting on his mama’s knee,
He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel
Saying, “Hammer’s going to be the death of me, Lord, Lord,
Hammer’s going to be the death of me.”
John Henry was a man just six feet high,
Nearly two feet and a half across his breast.
He’d hammer with a nine-pound hammer all day
And never get tired and want to rest, Lord, Lord,
And never get tired and want to rest.
John Henry went up on the mountain
And he looked one eye straight up its side.
The mountain was so tall and John Henry was so small,
He laid down his hammer and he cried, “Lord, Lord,”
He laid down his hammer and he cried.
John Henry said to his captain,
“Captain, you go to town,
Bring me back a TWELVE-pound hammer, please,
And I’ll beat that steam drill down, Lord, Lord,
I’ll beat that steam drill down.”
The captain said to John Henry,
“I believe this mountain’s sinking in.”
But John Henry said, “Captain, just you stand aside–
It’s nothing but my hammer catching wind, Lord, Lord,
It’s nothing but my hammer catching wind.”
John Henry said to his shaker,
“Shaker, boy, you better start to pray,
‘Cause if my TWELVE-pound hammer miss that little piece of steel,
Tomorrow’ll be your burying day, Lord, Lord,
Tomorrow’ll be your burying day.”
John Henry said to his captain,
“A man is nothing but a man,
But before I let your steam drill beat me down,
I’d die with a hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord,
I’d die with a hammer in my hand.”
The man that invented the steam drill,
He figured he was mighty high and fine,
But John Henry sunk the steel down fourteen feet
While the steam drill only made nine, Lord, Lord,
The steam drill only made nine.
John Henry hammered on the right-hand side.
Steam drill kept driving on the left.
John Henry beat that steam drill down.
But he hammered his poor heart to death, Lord, Lord,
He hammered his poor heart to death.
Well, they carried John Henry down the tunnel
And they laid his body in the sand.
Now every woman riding on a C and O train
Says, “There lies my steel-driving man, Lord, Lord,
There lies my steel-driving man.”
The song is a very interesting piece in that it was one of the first cultural occurrences to feature the concept of “Man vs. Machine”. This song was written at the height of the industrial revolution where big business reigned king. In America at the time, African American’s had only just claimed their freedom from slavery. While the song does have a very strict tone of Man vs. Machine, the song can also be viewed as an allegory for the African American community’s place in America at the time; They were able to do their work better their monopolistic overlords and yet, no matter how hard they worked, they would still never gain the respect they deserve. This specific version of the legend, however, has a more optimistic ending, giving hope to those who sought for the glory they deserved.