John Henry is a folk character, the larger then life railroad man who challenged a steam drill to a race and won
... only to die of exhaustion in his moment of victory.
There are many ways to look at this story: John Henry is a low-skilled worker, fighting against automation on the job. John Henry (along with Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan) is one of the last larger-than life American heroes lost in the age of “progress”. You can look at his story through the prism of race, class, masculinity, history.
Leadbelly sang about him
and Woody Guthrie
Here's Mississippi Fred McDowell:
and Bruce Springsteen:
You can also look at John Henry from the writer's perspective. Here is a man who kept at it, who discovered what he loved, what he was born to do (heck, he was born with a hammer in his hand, after all) and he engaged to the fullest. He didn't just drive steel he WAS a steel driving man.
Did he succeed? Not exactly.
Even in the most hopeful of versions, it's understood that in the future, steam drills will supplant spike drivers. So, then, is John Henry's life an example of futility?
I don't think so.
John Henry died satisfied. He died doing what he loved. Here's one version of his death scene:
"They took his hammer and wrapped it in gold
And gave it to Julia Ann;
And the last word John Hardy said to her was
Julia, do the best you can."
"If I die a railroad man,
Go bury me under the tie,
So I can hear old Number Four,
As she goes rolling by."
As I slog through one revision after another, I find myself thinking about John Henry. And though I don't always succeed, I try to approach my work with this sort of despite-everything joy.
Here's a lovely song-- one of my true favorites (and not even a one hit wonder!) about John Henry.... well actually about Elvis, who as Gillian Welch implies is sort of a sad counter point, a man who lost his love for his work and died "in long decline."
It's about John Henry, too, if tangentially.
When it comes to work-- both the paid and the aspiring variety—I would rather go out like John Henry, a hammer in my hand, satisfaction rather than success as my life's measure.
What about you?