The Ballad Of ‘John Henry’ Elicits Varied Feelings For Some Black Appalachian Residents
The ballad of “John Henry” tells the story of a railroad worker who challenges a steam drill to a contest to see who can drill a hole through a mountain fastest and farthest. With his immense strength and skill, John Henry wins, but he dies from his efforts.
There is much debate about the historical facts of the song. But most accounts describe Henry as an African American man from West Virginia or Virginia who worked for the C&O Railroad. Researchers say he was either a freed slave working for pay or that he was incarcerated and forced to work as a convict laborer.
Like any traditional song that has endured through generations, there are lots of versions of “John Henry.” There are also many different interpretations of the song. For some people who grew up in Black communities in Appalachia, the song elicits a variety of feelings.
We’ve Always Heard That Song
For Theresa Gloster, the ballad of “John Henry” has always been there.
“I can't remember not hearing it,” Gloster said. All our lives, from children to adults, we've always heard that song.
Gloster is in her 70s and was born in McDowell County, West Virginia. She grew up in a historically African American community in Lenoir, North Carolina where she lives today. Gloster was raised by her grandparents in a house full of other children. Her grandfather, who she calls "Daddy," traveled back and forth from North Carolina to West Virginia to work in the coal mines. Whenever he was back home with the family, Gloster said he was always singing and telling stories.
“Daddy would sing ‘John Henry,’ and when he didn't sing it, we'd ask him to sing it,” Gloster said. “And after he would sing it one time we'd say, ‘Daddy, sing it again. Daddy, sing it again.’”
Gloster thinks her grandfather was drawn to John Henry because the story resonated with his experience as a coal miner—another job that is physically demanding and dangerous.
“He knew what it took to go in those mines and to work,” Gloster said. “And he also knew the ins and outs because his father got killed in the coal mines. So he knew the hardship of it. And he also knew the joy to be able to provide for his family.”
For Gloster, the story of “John Henry” was a lesson from her grandfather about hard work and perseverance.
“To me, John Henry had a determination,” Gloster said. “Regardless of how hard it is, and how hard life was…you don't let it beat you down. You get up and you just keep going, you just keep going.”
The ballad of “John Henry” remains important to Gloster today. In fact, she still sings it.
“When we get together—even to this day—if there's a baby around, somebody is going to start singing ‘John Henry,’” Gloster said.
Singing the song helps Gloster feel connected to her grandfather.
“To sing the song to this day, I enjoy it as if he was singing through me,” Gloster said. “It's like, all of a sudden his presence just comes up in the room. Just Daddy's sound, I can just hear his voice. And everything is positive to me.”
I Feel Like It’s Kind of Propaganda
But not everybody has positive associations with the ballad of “John Henry.” Some people, like Ruby Daniels, see the song differently.
“I feel like it’s kind of propaganda. That this Black man would sacrifice himself for industry. Maybe he sacrificed himself so his family could eat,” Daniels said.
Daniels is in her 40s and lives outside of Beckley, West Virginia in what used to be a Black coal camp. Her family has lived in the area since the late 1800s. Daniels grew up in Maryland, but spent summers in West Virginia with her grandmother. On the drive from Maryland to West Virginia, Daniels’s family would pass through Hinton, and they often stopped to see the statue of John Henry there. It’s located by the Big Bend Tunnel, where some versions of the ballad say the competition took place. As a kid, Daniels was impressed by the statue.
“I thought it was amazing to see this beautiful Black—I mean, the statue is black, and he's muscular, and he has these mallets in his hand,” Daniels said. “He's like a chocolate candy bar. He looks so good.”
Daniels learned “John Henry” in her middle school choir program. But she never heard anyone in her family sing it. Like Gloster, Daniels also comes from a family of coal miners. But for Daniels’s family, they didn’t have a positive connection with the song. Henry’s death in the story cuts too close to home.
“Coal is not our friend,” Daniels said. “I have a great uncle that died in the coal mines. …My great-grandfather was a coal cutter, so he was injured by the mountains. A lot of the older men that would come around here, hang out with my grandparents—they were amputees. They would have legs gone. And everybody had black lung, including my grandmother.”
When Daniels hears “John Henry,” she hears the story of how Black and immigrant workers have been exploited throughout the country’s history.
“In regards to Great Bend, it wasn't just John Henry that died. A lot of people got silicosis from drilling into these mountains,” Daniels said.” I learned that between 800 and 1000 people died in the Great Bend—in the building of that… I just feel like that's been a common history with African American labor. In any event, even you know, back to slavery. That, ‘Oh, we can kill that property. We will work them to death on the cotton fields. We’ll work them to death on the tobacco fields.’"
Throwing the Hammer Down
Like Daniels, singer-songwriter Amythyst Kiah also sees “John Henry” as a story about the exploitation of workers.
“His proof of worth was the fact that he could work faster than a machine and that he dies in the process,” Kiah said. “That’s pretty devastating.”
Kiah is in her 30s and lives in Johnson City, Tennessee. She’s a member of the roots music supergroup Our Native Daughters, which is made up of four Black female banjo players. For their debut album, Kiah co-wrote a song titled “Polly Ann’s Hammer.”
The song is a reworking of Sid Hemphill’s version of “John Henry.” With Kiah singing lead, “Polly Ann’s Hammer” tells the story of John Henry’s wife.
“Everybody knows who John Henry is,” Kiah said. “We know that story. But what we wanted to highlight and bring to the forefront is Polly Ann.”
Many versions of “John Henry” include references to Polly Ann. But not all. For instance, when Gloster was growing up, she never heard her grandfather sing about Polly Ann.
“I didn't know that John Henry had a little woman and her name was Polly Ann,” Gloster said. “And John Henry got sick and they put him to bed and said ‘and Polly drove that steel, like a man. Polly drove that steel like a man.’”
When Gloster learned about Polly Ann, she was reminded of a time in her own life, when she was married to a coal miner and living in West Virginia. It brought up memories of the hard work the women in the community did. Gloster realized that “John Henry” was also a song about the women’s strength.
“Where he left off, she just picked up the torch and she said she'd carry on,” Gloster said. “She could do whatever he couldn't do, and she'd be the best that she could be. And that's what you see in those women out there. It's like they handled things. I really see that in them. And in that song, you see the strength of the woman, you see her strength.”
For Kiah, writing “Polly Ann’s Hammer” was a way to pay homage to Polly Ann and the working-class women she represents.
“She was the one that had to take care of the kids. She was the one that had to create a sanctuary for her family. And on top of that, she could also drive steel,” Kiah said. “She’s got two jobs. One involves forgetting your sense of humanity and the other one involves very much having to have humanity—to deal with your children, to deal with your husband who is also a tired cog in the wheel. …So, if anything, you could even argue that her life is more difficult.”
The song was also a way to envision a different future for Polly Ann’s child. A future where people aren’t just a cog in a machine, but one where their humanity is recognized. In the last verse of the song, Kiah sings, “This little hammer killed John Henry/Won't kill me, won't kill me/This little hammer killed your daddy/Throw it down and we'll be free.”
“Polly Ann is hoping that one day her child is gonna have more options than maybe what she had,” Kiah said. “So, the idea of throwing the hammer down and you'll be free—to be free to choose what you want to do, which is an important part of freedom.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council. The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.