JOHN HENRY IN FICTION

 

The story of John Henry has been depicted by the entertainment industry for many years.  Some are animated and some non-animated. These fictional versions, while entertaining to the young and old alike, are what they are - works of fiction. No more, no less.  Here are some of the differences seen in the summaries below.

 

  • All of the versions portrays John Henry with super natural strength. 

  • All of them misrepresents the type of work in which he was employed. Rather than driving spikes into wooden ties to hold the track down, he was a steel driver—a man that hammered steel drill bits into the rock to make holes for explosives. 

  • The shakers job description: a shaker’s job was to hold the steel, then, shake and slightly turn the bit every time the hammer hit it.  Not holding railroad spikes.

  • Working for the C&O Railroad or O&H Railroad: the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway (C&O) is the proper name.

  • They were to receive 40 or 50 acres of land: John Henry works for daily wages for one of the sub-contractors that built the tunnel. 

  • The railroad track was already at the mountain: the railroad tracks were miles away and did not reach the site until the tunnel was almost completed.

The Story of John Henry is part of the animated Rabbit Ears Series published in 1995 with narration by Denzel Washington and music by B.B. King.  It begins with Denzel Washington proclaiming that it is a 99.9% gold-plated true story.  In this production, John Henry is born weighing 45 pounds with a hammer in his hand, talking, and asking for a large amount of food and 2 pots of strong coffee 2 hours later.  When he becomes so large that he is unable to fit in the front door of his parents’ home, he sets out on his own and follows a railroad track until he reaches the Big Bend Mountain.  There, he hires on with the C&O Railroad or C&O Line.  His job is portrayed as a “gandy dancer” driving railroad spikes into wooden ties to hold the tracks in place instead of as a tunneling steel driver. The steam drill is described as a complicated machine made of six types of steel with dials, gauges, drills, and hammers everywhere. The production has John Henry and the steam drill entering the tunnel together.  After the contest is over, it is announced that John Henry had defeated the machine.  He then emerges from the tunnel covered in coal dust and dies shortly after. The narrator then tells us that he is just resting.

John Henry and the Railroad is a non-animated True Tall Tale production by Whitestone Motion Pictures in 2014. It stars E. Roger Mitchell as John Henry and Eugene H. Russel IV as Jack Henry, his son.  Russell was also the narrator and Nicholas Kirk provided the music. 

 

This version begins with the narrator proclaiming that everything he tells you is the honest to goodness truth.  John Henry is a 5' 6" newly freed slave looking for a better life for himself and his son. He drives three spikes with three swings of his hammer to win a job as the result of a bet with the railroad boss.  This version also has him working for the O&H Railroad and never refers to Big Bend Mountain nor West Virginia.

According to the story, if the railroad is completed on time, all of the workers will receive 40 acres of land for their pay. When they are close to completing the job, a spike-driving machine shows up and the boss tells them that they are being replaced by a giant tin can. John Henry challenges the machines operator to a 3-mile contest to save the men's jobs and their future land.  The story has him driving railroad spikes though flat land until he comes to a big mountain when the machine, which is equipped with a drill, starts to go through it. John Henry tells his son to bring out his biggest hammers.  When the crew questions him about the bigger hammers, he replies "there are always bigger hammers". Once he has them he uses them to bore a tunnel though the mountain without any other help to win the contest. He does not die in this version but goes on to farm his 40 acres where he outlives that "rusty piece of junk". "Grit, sweat, and love" is his motto.

Shelly Duvall’s non-animated Tall Tales and Legends - John Henry (1986) was written by Sarah Wenk.  The cast includes Danny Glover, Tom Hulce, Lou Rawls, Lynn Whitfield, Barry Corbin, and Shelly Duvall.  Tom Hulce begins the tale by stating that John Henry was as big as a mountain, had arms as big as oak trees, could pick a field of cotton in a day and had a voice like the angels themselves. 

On the night he was born, lightning bolts shaped like 9-pound steel fill the sky and thunder that sounded like laughter filled the nighttime. By the time he was 12 years old he could split rails like a grown man and won rail splitting contest every Sunday. In 1867 the slaves in Tennessee were set free with no work available. John Henry set out for West Virginia and walked all the way to the C&O work camp at Big Bend Mountain. Upon arrival he meets Polly Ann and immediately is smitten and is spurned in return. When the boss (Jenkins) refuses to hire him, he challenges the top steel driver Spike, who is Polly Ann's boyfriend, to a contest—him using 1 hand, Spike using 2 hands for a job. He wins the contest then tells Spike that the mountain is big enough for 2 champions and that he is "nothing but a natural born man nothing more nothing less".  In spite of this, Spike leaves the camp. John Henry continues to try to impress Polly Ann and does not secede until he feigns sickness that backfires on him until he presents her with flowers he had pick for her. After a short courtship he proposes to her and she accepts they become man and wife.

The work performed in this production has John Henry driving both railroad spikes to hold down the tracks and driving steel drill bits into the mountain for placing explosives. When Jenkins decides to bring in the steam drill (the Ol' Mighty Steam Drill), he does so with the anticipation of it doing the work of 10 men; therefore, cutting cost and saving time by replacing the men. John Henry tells him that it can’t drive more steel then him and suggest that they have a 10-hour contest.  If he wins, the men keep their jobs. Jenkins agrees to the terms then later offers him $50.00 and a permanent job to back out of the contest. John Henry refuses to abandon his co-workers and their family's livelihood. When Spikes hears of the contest he returns and offers to be John Henry's shaker saying before he was a champion steel driver he was a champion shaker. When John Henry wins the contest by driving 15 feet to the steam engine’s nine.  Jenkins proclaims, “No mortal man could do what you had done".  Tom Hulce concludes saying that John Henry's laughter blew a "hole in the mountain and it is now called the Big Bend Tunnel, that he had worn out 50 hammers, and he hit the mountain so hard it cried creating a beautiful waterfall.”  On the question of if he died, the narrator states that you can’t kill off a man like John Henry.

Greatest American Tall Tales & Legends produced be Schlessinger Media (2006) is an animated production.  Cast and voices include Thomas H. Zingarelli (Curly Joe) narrator, Robyn Ferralane, John Barrilla, Rusty Ferralane, Denis Rowland, and Brice F. Miller. The production begins with the narrator Curly Joe telling of John Henry's birth in West Virginia.  Right from the start, you knew the birth to be rare for a rainbow appeared over the broken down cabin his parents owned. "Now a rainbow in itself is rare but John Henry was rare himself".  He was a large child that barely fitted in the cradle.  He surprises everyone by reaching out and taking his father’s hammer, which weighs 30 pounds or more. 

 

After the Civil War was over, money could be made clearing rocks for roadways. A road boss hires John Henry after he breaks to pieces a large rock with one swing of his hammer.  He also fires the rest of the crew until John Henry points out that they will be needed to remove the debris.  The boss relents with the exception of Willie who is small in stature.  But, John Henry insists that Willie is an important part of the job and prevails.  This is the beginning of John Henry's desire to look out for his friends and coworkers. Then narrator Curly Joe informs us that he was the biggest strongest man in the state of West Virginia and that he married a girl by the name of Pollie and had a son.

When the railroad arrives, he inquiries about a job and the captain is ready to hire him.  But everyone is afraid to hold the spike for him.  Therefore, the captain refuses to hire an untested man. His old friend Willie appears and agrees to hold the spike which John Henry drives in one swing. Thus, securing a job for Willie and himself. Curly Joe tells us that when he worked at night sparks flew up from his hammer giving the appearance of fireworks for miles around.  John Henry liked to sing a song "a man is nothing but a man, and a man has to do his best but every man sometimes no matter how strong got to take his rest".

When a new newfangled machine called a steam drill arrives threatening to take the jobs of the men, he challenges it to a contest—whoever goes the furthest into the mountain wins.  John Henry wins after the machine blows up, but he is unable to stop working until he breaks out of the other side of the mountain. The strain was too much for his heart and he falls down telling Willie that he's done the best he could do and it is now time for him to take his rest. Curly Joe ends the story be informing us that if we are ever in West Virginia to be sure to visit the Big Bend Tunnel.

Disney’s animated version John Henry American Legend released in 2002 features Geoffrey Jones as the voice of John Henry, Alfre Woodard’s voice as Polly, Tim Hodge’s voice as MacTavish, Dave Murry’s voice as Thomas, Carrie Harrington’s voice as the singing voice of Polly, and music by Stephen James Taylor with the introduction and conclusion by James Earl Jones. This short version has singing and music interlaced with the story and John Henry and Polly as newlywed, newly freed slaves that are looking for a better life.

They come upon the railroad camp where the workers have all but given up.  John Henry rejuvenates the men and the work continues. Their pay in this version is 50 acres of land upon completion. Like "John Henry and the Railroad”, when the steam drill arrives on site, the contract is terminated voiding the 50 acres promised to the men. John Henry challenges the steam drill to a contest at the mountain first and temporary thinks that he had won. Then, the machine arrives and to everyone's surprise, there is a drill attached to it and it is immediately put to use drilling though the mountain. At first, John Henry losses faith in himself and gives up until Polly sings an encouraging song to him and another worker gives him a second hammer.  This energies John Henry and he hammers his way through the mountain to win the contest. He then falls down and dies in Polly's arms with his hammer in his hand. James Earl Jones concludes the story with, "In Talcott, West Virginia, a statue of John Henry now towers over the Great Bend Tunnel as a powerful reminder that the American spirit is as indomitable today as it was yesterday".

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ROUTE 3/12, TALCOTT, WEST VIRGINIA 24981

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