“Drove so Hard he Broke his Heart”: John Henry and Workplace Speed

Last year I wrote an article about responses to speed and overwork in the 19th century. I focused on why the medical community, sociologists, and organized labor were so opposed to this working style and their strategies for resistance.

I’m currently reading Scott Reynold Nelson’s “Steel Drivin’ Man: the Untold Story of an American Legend,” and found a passage that I think needs to be a part of the history of overwork conversation. In the excerpt below from the second chapter, Nelson talks about work songs and how rail workers in the 19th and 20th centuries used them to set the pace of work, share physically hard work burdens, and warn each other not to work so hard as to harm themselves. Its important to see how workers themselves could resist overwork on the job site and I’m glad I can add this to my earlier conversation. If you want to learn more I highly recommend Nelson’s book, its amazing!

John Henry
“John Henry, from the Series American Folk Heroes” by William Gropper, 1953. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

As documents, work songs are difficult. Most are fragments. For the most part they seemed to be extended complaints about work, not really stories about anything.

Take this hammer, huh
Give it to the Captain, huh
Tell him I’m gone, huh
Tell him I’m gone, huh


This old hammer, huh
Killed John Henry, huh
Killed my brother, huh
Won’t kill me, huh
Won’t kill me, huh

I did figure out a few things. While the songs were not objects, trackliners nevertheless used them as tools, just like a maul, a pick, or a shovel. Gangs of four to twelve workers sang them as they dug up, or “dogged,” track.The dog was a railroad pick, and everyone jiggered his dog under the track as he sung a phrase in the song. The huh in the song told workers to push their dogs down and lever the rail up. Just as sea shanties told sailors when to pull on the rigging, hammer songs told trackliners when to dog the track. If everyone pulled at once, it helped prevent backaches and muscle strain (both serious problems for railroad workers). The tempo of the song set the crew’s pace.

Unlike sea shanties, which were long and involved, almost narrative poems, track songs were mostly about hard work and loneliness. Sea shanties were meaty, collectible. Like Henry Grady’s letters they told you something about people’s dreams and experiences. Tracklining songs seemed hard and short. What did they suggest besides that trackliner’s lives were hard and short? Tragic, certainly, but not very revealing.

I was stuck. I was just a month away from having to deliver the paper about railroad work songs in Chicago. All I could do was keep returning to the songs, rereading them, thinking about the bare stories they told. The one song that drew me, as it drew so many others before me, as the story of John Henry. Unlike most railroad songs, it was long, it told a story, and there were dozens of versions to consider. It was so rich in content that sociology and English professors had compared it to the epic poems of ten centuries ago. They concluded that John Henry must have been a trackliner’s hero. Because the song of John Henry was a long, partly improvised ballad, it was easy to collect. Dozens of verses repeated, but every one of the verses looked different.

When John Henry was a little lad
A-holding of his papa’s hand,
Says “If I live until I’m twenty one,
I’m goin’ to make a steel drivin’ man.”

And Johnny said, when he was a man
He made his words come true
He’s the best steel-driver on the C&O road,
He belongs to the steel driving crew.

They brought John Henry from the white house
And took him from the tunnel to drive,
He drove so hard he broke his heart
He laid down his hammer and he died.

I heard the walking boss coming,
Coming down the line;
I thought I heard the walking boss say,
“Johhny’s in tunnel number nine.”

John Henry standing on the right hand side
The steam drill standing on the left,
He says “I’ll beat that steam drill down,
Or I’ll die with my hammer on my breast.”

He placed the drill on the top of the rock,
The steam drill standing by his side,
He beat the steam drill an inch and a half,
And he laid down his hammer and he died.

Before he died he said to his boss,
“O bossman! How can it be,
The rock is so hard and the steel is so tough,
I can feel my muscle giving way?”

Johnny said just before he died,
“I hope I’ll meet you all above,
You take my hammer and wrap it in gold,
And give it to the girl I love

When the people heard of poor Johnny’s death
They could not stay at their home,
They all come out on the C&O line
Where steel-drivin Johnny used to roam.

If I die a railroad man
Go bury me under the tie,
So I can hear old number four
As she goes rolling by.
If you won’t bury me under the track,
Bury me under the sand,
With a pick and a shovel under my head
And a nine pound hammer in my hand.

There are more than fifty John Henry work songs, some sung as hammer songs. These were brief, usually punctuated with the huh of the trackliners. Others were sung as ballads to be accompanied by banjo, fiddle, or guitar. The songs about John Henry intrigued me because they seemed to be about a railroad I knew a lot about- the Chesapeake & Ohio, the Southern Railway’s chief competitor.

As I worked on my hammer-songs paper, I couldn’t help recalling the story of the railroad workers who had been leased to the C&O by the penitentiary and then died.I suppose that troubling story led me to read the songs a little differently. The songs had been recorded by academics who could not easily annotate or describe their speed, phrasing, or rhythmic accompaniment. All that was saved, for the most part, was the words.

Most interpretations analyzed the words but heard the modern versions, which made it a fast and chirpy country song. Those upbeat versions of the song probably predisposed these scholars to interpret John Henry as a hero, a man who had preformed an impossible feat. That interpretation didn’t fit in with what I knew about hammer songs. Most seemed bitter. They cursed hard work, bosses, and unfaithful bosses. They predicted pain and death.

Cap’n don’t you think I ever gets tired,
Cap’n don’t you think I ever gets tired,
Of drivin’ steel, Lord
Of drivin steel

‘Cause this here old hammer
Hammer it must be loaded.
‘Cause this here old hammer
Hammer it must be loaded.
With cannon ball, Lord
With cannon ball.

In fact, the earliest recorded lyrics seemed to emphasize the supernatural, suggesting that John Henry died but still lived in the ground, knocking, as though haunting the living. In one hammer song the driver says, “Can you hear me/Knock John Henry/On this hammer?” One folklorist noted that many black workers in the 1930s refused to go near the C&O tunnels at night, fearing the ghost of John Henry. The supernatural aspect of John Henry recalled West African traditions, particularly Igbo stories about evil spirits that would have been transmitted from Africa by slaves. According to Igbo tradition, those who had died in terrible or surprising conditions still inhabited the underground. These spirits might possess or haunt the living and needed to be warded off by various means, including singing to keep their souls at bay. Collectors who gathered, recorded, and transcribed in the late 1920s mentioned their creepy, supernatural side, but fewer modern songs sounded this way.

In the context of the traditions around the John Henry story and the hammer songs, this seemed less a story about praise than a chilling song about death- a song that men at work sang to warn themselves about the dangers of overwork.

Lordy, Lord
Why did you send dat steam?
It’s caused de boss man to run me,
Run me like an oxyen team.

Above all, they seemed like exhortations to slow down.

This old hammer
Killed John Henry,
Killed my brother,
Can’t kill me.

They were fantasies of escape.

Take this hammer
Hammer to the captain
Tell him I’m gone.

Many hammer songs referred to John Henry, dwelling on his hard work, suffering, and death, not his victory over the steam drill.

The hammah John Henry swung,
It weighed over nine poun’
He broke a rib in his left hand side,
And his intrels fell on the groun’.

These were songs about escape or death, not exhortations to work hard like some hero out of the Illiad.

So I began to write about how the song “John Henry” fit into the genre of hammer songs that reminded trackliners to slow down. Labor historians talk about how how workers managed their labor by setting a “stint,” or pace for it. Men who violated the stint were shunned. In the same way, perhaps, the hammer song and ballad acted as a tool in a second sense. Besides setting a pace, here was a song that told you what happened to men who worked too fast: They died ugly deaths ; their entrails fell on the ground. You sang the song slowly, you worked slowly, you guarded your life, or you died.

With this in mind, “John Henry,” especially the convict version from Parchman, Mississippi, recorded in 1948, sounded like a dirge, one more in keeping with African American burial songs of decades earlier.


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