The legend of the railroader John Henry is a story that places man against machine. However, the old legend’s lessons are as important today as ever – serving as reminders of the quiet but strong dignity of everyday working people and their families.
The John Henry legend goes that a lone black railroader, in a stand against technological invasion, hammered his way to death after a successful race against some new fangled machine called the steam drill. The tale pits John Henry and his hammer on the one side of the track against a steam drill on the other. When all was said and done, legend has it that the steam drill advanced nine feet, but John Henry had progressed fourteen.
John Henry won the contest, but ultimately the raced proved fatal, as a short time later the superhuman effort of this single man cost him his life. The tale tells us he died in the arms of his loyal and proud wife, Pollie Ann, wondering how she’ll carry on without him.
“He hugged and kissed her
just before he died,
Saying, ‘Pollie, do the very best you can.’”
From W.T. Blankenship’s, John Henry, Steel-Driving Man
While the John Henry legend is told in multiple versions – some say he was driving spikes into crossties, some say he was drilling holes for dynamite, some say he was tunneling into a mountain, some say he worked on the C&O, the L&N, or the B&O railroads. But all these different versions of the great John Henry go to prove one thing: the meaning of this timeless legend speaks to all workingmen.
John Henry’s challenge might appear senseless to some – a useless opposition to the same machine that would in fact emancipate him from a workingman’s hard labors. But in the opinion of many more, a reading of the legend as simple as man against machine misses the point.
John Henry, it is true, could have just as easily in today’s terms changed his “job description” to become a “steam drill operator”. But, in the minds of many, this misses the more important point of the legend: John Henry’s tragedy is not that the old ways of performing a day’s labor are replaced by technology, but that society finds it more convenient to discharge the old laborer than retrain him, or, at minimum, retire him with dignity.
The fault of John Henry’s era was that it lacked a sense of obligation toward the displaced workingman. John Henry might as well die if he lost the contest, because he would surely lose his job, and in that day and age that would have been tantamount to loss of life.
Unfortunately, this fault of the lack of respect for the workingman rings as true today as ever.
While today in America, daily survival is not on the line when jobs are at stake, the need to recognize the dignity of every workingman and woman is as important as it was in John Henry’s day. These lessons for the need for respect and dignity for a man’s labors ring just as true today as ever. In the hearts of America’s strong working families, John Henry remains as indomitable as ever.
For more reading on the John Henry legend, and many more railroad heroes, see Norm Cohen’s “Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong.” University of Illinois Press.