John Henry has been immortalized in folk music since the 1800s. His “Ballad of John Henry” tells the story of an ex-slave working on the railroad, one who could wield a hammer with the best of them. He challenged a steam drill to see who could work faster, and he won, though he died soon afterwards from sheer exhaustion. The greatest heroes die in the end, and Henry’s story has ascended to near-myth because of it.
Thing is, though, he might actually be a myth. As NPR explains, John Henry is almost certainly a “tall tale,” though one based on “historical circumstance.” There were obviously men working on railroads back in the 1800s, and steam drills were eventually introduced as a way to speed up labor and reduce costs. More than likely, the rail workers disapproved of a machine taking their jobs, though it’s unproven if anybody actually attempted to work faster than one. Likely nobody did, but the idea was an inviting one, which explains why a song about it has proven so popular.
As country music star Merle Travis said, “There’s been dozens and dozens of different tales about where John Henry comes from.” That’s pretty good evidence that Henry was born in our imaginations, not in any physical place.