John Henry (folklore)

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"John Henry." Folk song, most famously (not SF), but also a notable short film, John Henry and the Inky-Poo — and other media.[1] The Wikipedia article summarizes the legend,

According to legend, John Henry's prowess as a steel-driver was measured in a race against a steam-powered rock drilling machine, a race that he won only to die in victory with hammer in hand as his heart gave out from stress. Various locations, including Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia, Lewis Tunnel in Virginia, and Coosa Mountain Tunnel in Alabama, have been suggested as the site of the contest.[2]

It is possible that the hero of the ballad was based on "a 19-year-old African-American man alternately referred to as John Henry, John W. Henry, or John William Henry," an inmate of the Virginia Penitentiary hired out for tunnel work.[3] Or other historical Black men in the United States in the latter part of the 19th century (roughly, the intersection of The Machine Age and Jim Crow). In any event, "John Henry is a symbol of physical strength and endurance, of exploited labor, of the dignity of a human being against the degradations of the machine age, and of racial pride and solidarity" ("Reflections on '"John Henry': Ethical Issues in Singing Performance," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 67.2: 173–180; cited in Wikipedia article, n. 17).[4]

As of February 2020, available in mixed media on YouTube, this version:[5] For various renderings of the song, including by Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger:[6].

Song parodied in the Simpsons episode "The Miseducation of Lisa Simpson".

RDE, Initial Compiler, 17Feb20.