In an interview, Scott Reynolds Nelson, author of Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, The Untold Story of an American Legend, says:
"When the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad was building the mile-long Lewis Tunnel through the mountains of western Virginia in the 1870s, they couldn’t get laborers to work alongside the steam drill because it produced bad air. So they got 200 convicts. John Henry was from New Jersey, and he originally was arrested for shoplifting."
"Railroad track liners used the song [there are over 200 songs about John Henry] to remind others to work slowly and preserve themselves. In the early part of the 20th century, folklore scholars discovered the song. They said, 'He must have been 10 feet tall and 4 feet wide, just a huge man.' So he became a folklore relic, even though he was actually very short—5-feet-1 and a quarter, the perfect size for making tunnels."
"Basically everyone who worked on that tunnel was dead within a couple of years. The granite dust generated from the steam drill got sucked into their noses and their lungs. John Henry died of what we now call acute silicosis; then, they would have called it consumption. He was 23."
Carlene Hempel writes in her essay, The Man - Facts, Fiction and Themes:
"The story of John Henry, told mostly through ballads and work songs, traveled from coast to coast as the railroads drove west during the 19th Century. And in time, it has become timeless, spanning a century of generations with versions ranging from prisoners recorded at Mississippi's Parchman Farm in the late 1940s to present-day folk heroes."
"Like Paul Bunyan, John Henry's life was about power - the individual, raw strength that no system could take from a man - and about weakness - the societal position in which he was thrust. To the thousands of railroad hands, he was an inspiration and an example, a man just like they who worked in a deplorable, unforgiving atmosphere but managed to make his mark."
"Whatever John Henry meant or has come to mean, his legend has persevered. Perhaps that's because it reminds us of a time in history - the war and Reconstruction - that we know we ought not to forget. Or, perhaps it's that John Henry represents to us a man who stayed true, despite living in a time and place where, just like in Big Bend, the roads were blocked and the choices, limited."
Edward Douglas collected this version of the John Henry legend that was sung by Ohio prisoners working on the chain gang:
When John Henry was a little boy,
Sitting upon his father's knee,
His father said, "Look here, my boy,
You must be a steel driving man like me,
You must be a steel driving man like me."
John Henry went upon the mountain,
Just to drive himself some steel.
The rocks was so tall and John Henry so small,
He said lay down hammer and squeal,
He said lay down hammer and squeal.
John Henry had a little wife,
And the dress she wore was red;
The last thing before he died,
He said, "Be true to me when I'm dead,
Oh, be true to me when I'm dead."
John Henry's wife ask him for fifteen cents,
And he said he didn't have but a dime,
Said, "If you wait till the rising sun goes down,
I'll borrow it from the man in the mine,
I'll borrow it from the man in the mind."
John Henry started on the right-hand side,
And the steam drill started on the left.
He said, "Before I'd let that steam drill beat me down,
I'd hammer my fool self to death,
Oh, I'd hammer my fool self to death."
The steam drill started at half past six,
John Henry started the same time.
John Henry stuck bottom at half past eight,
And the steam drill didn't bottom till nine,
Oh, the steam drill didn't bottom till nine.
John Henry said to his captain,
"A man, he ain't nothing but a man,
Before I'd let that steam drill beat me down,
Oh, I'd die with the hammer in my hand."
John Henry said to his shaker,
"Shaker, why don't you sing just a few more rounds?
And before the setting sun goes down,
You're gonna hear this hammer of mine sound,
You're gonna hear this hammer of mine sound."
John Henry hammered on the mountain,
He hammered till half past three,
He said, "This big Bend Tunnel on the C. & O. road
Is going to be the death of me,
Lord! Is going to be the death of me.!"
John Henry had a little baby boy,
You could hold him in the palm of your hand.
The last words before he died,
"Son, you must be a steel driving man,
Son, you must be a steel driving man."
John Henry had a little woman,
And the dress she wore was red,
She went down the railroad track and never came back,
Said she was going where John Henry fell dead,
Said she was going where John Henry fell dead.
John Henry hammering on the mountain
As the whistle blew for half past two,
The last word I heard him say,
"Captain, I've hammered my insides in two,
Lord, I've hammered my insides in two."