John Henry: Then and Now

by W. Nikola-Lisa
John Henry: Then and Now
W. Nikola-Lisa
African American Review
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John Henry: Then and Now

The legend of John Henry has a rich and varied background. More than a century old, it has withstood the test of time as a popular American legend with near-universal appeal. For the last thirty years, however, the John Henry story has been domi- nated by one picture book retelling, Ezra Jack Keats's John Henry: An American Legend (1965). Although there have been various picture book retellings within the last three decades (Stein, 1969; Blassinggame, 1971; Nader, 1980; Sanfield, 1991; and Jensen, 1993), Keats's version still remains one of the most captivating, rendered with his signature collage style reflecting his love of marbled papers, bold patterns, and brilliant colors. Keats's retelling has outlasted its competitors, however, not because of the artist's captivating illustrative style, but because of Keats's message. For Keats, John Henry is the personification of the medieval Everyman who struggles against insurmountable odds and wins. With the release of Julius Lester's (1994) and Terry Small's (1994) retellings, however, we are forced to reevalu- ate the legacy of Keats's contribution, because Lester and Small accomplish what Keats is unable to-they position themselves firmly within the black community, dealing more honestly and squarely with John Henry's African American heritage. All three writers narrate a chronology of events in the life of John Henry, starting with his birth. For Keats and Lester, there is a miraculous quality to John Henry's birth, what Brett Williams calls a "magico-spiritual Moses-like event" (86). John Henry is unnaturally strong, strong enough, in fact, at birth to wave a hammer (Keats) or hold his cradle high over his head (Lester). Lester further amplifies the magical quality of John Henry's birth by giving his origins a more mythic quality: Lester introduces a unicorn at the special event. In Small's retelling, John Henry's birth is ordinary, but not uncomplicated: He is born a slave. Although he soon grows big and strong, his physical prowess is not that of Superman. He is large, yes; strong, of course; but he does not possess the superhuman qualities characteristic of Keats's and Lester's folk hero. Whereas Small deals quickly with John Henry's early life, Keats and Lester chronicle several episodes in his adolescent life before John Henry leaves his hometown to seek work on a road crew. In Keats's story, after helping around the house, and then working as a fieldhand on a nearby farm, John Henry finds work on a riverboat. In Lester's version, John Henry also works around the house, then has a brief episode with the town bully before set- ting off into the world. These early episodes reinforce both John Henry's physical prowess and his personal stature as a kind, good-natured person. SmalI, on the other hand, omits these

W. Nikola-Lisa is Associate Professor of Education at National-Louis University in Evanston, Illinois, and the author of numerous books for children. His most recent book is Shake Dern Halloween Bones (1997), published by Houghton Mifflin.

demonstrations of character, seeing them as overly sentimental and unnec- essary to the political message to which he is committed. Small moves swiftly to John Henry's adult life and his encounter with Josiah Haley, owner of the newly developed steam drill.

Ultimately, however, in all three stories, John Henry races the steam drill. Although the details vary in each story, the outcome is the same: John Henry beats the steam drill, emerges into the light of day, and then falls dead from sheer exhaustion. Both Keats and Small end their stories at this point, though with different emotional effects-and political overtones-given the different perspectives taken. Lester, on the other hand, adds an epilogue: After John Henry's death, his coffin is loaded on a train and taken to Washington, D.C., where it is "buried on the White House lawn" late one evening.

The differences in narrative struc- ture outlined above are comple- Imented by differences in each author's Ijtorytelling style. Small is perhaps the (:losest to the original presentation in Inis use of the folk ballad. Small's style IIS pithy and terse; it is the language of 1the common working man filled with jfrequent expressions of rural black dialect, as the following two stanzas Imdicate:

Then John git to pumpin like a natural


With his arms all shinin black,

And his legs start swayin to the ching-


With the steam risin off his back.

"Water boy, come here!" John Henry call. "Git your feets like a rollin wheel! Bring a bucket for to cool my body down, Bring another for to cool my steel!" (15)

3mall tells his story directly, without netaphors, vivid descriptive language, 3r lengthy asides. He often treats his .mages coarsely, while at the same time showing an occasional softer side, as

hen he describes a pastoral setting as :he "pine-clad virgin hills." All in all, 3mall remains intent on the political :ontent of his tale, minimizing any sen- :imental attitudes or romantic imagery :hat might distract his audience. The .nd result is a voice that is earthy, even :rude, but always truthful and to the 3oint.

Lester, on the other hand, although 2asing his story on several ballad jources, exhibits a much more colorful ~ndloose storytelling style. His diction .s folksy, filled with regional idioms, :olorful expressions, and natural .magery. Take for example, Lester's jescription of John Henry as he begins :o race the steam drill:

On the other side was John Henry.

Next to the mountain he didn't look

much bigger than a wish that wasn't

going to come true.

He had a twenty-pound hammer

in each hand and muscles hard as wis-

dom in each arm. As he swung them

through the air, they shone like silver,

and when the hammers hit the rock, they rang like gold. Before long, tongues of fire leaped out with each blow. (22)

Lester also animates his story with

anthropomorphic images. When the

sun rises, it doesn't just pop over the

hills. Lester takes his time, plays with

the image, embellishes the act: "The

sun yawned, washed its face, flossed

and brushed its teeth, and hurried up

over the horizon." Similarly, on the

morning that John Henry is to race the

steam drill, Lester breathes life into the

act: "The birds weren't singing and the

roosters weren't crowing. When the

sun didn't hear the rooster, he won-

dered if something was wrong. So he

rose a couple of minutes early to see."

Along with these animated images, Lester infuses his story with contempo- rary references. When John Henry repairs his parents' porch, he adds, at the same time, "a wing onto the house with an indoor swimming pool and one of them jacutzis." And, when he strikes a boulder with his twenty- pound hammer, the boulder shivers "like you do on a cold winter morning when it looks like the school bus is never going to come."

Lester's storytelling style is, in short, full-bodied and electric; filled with colorful expressions, figurative language, and hyperbole; awash in sensuous rhythms. Lester breathes life into John Henry, ensuring his place in the pantheon of American tall-tale heroes. When illustrator Jerry Pinkney depicts John Henry standing a full head and shoulders above the rest of the men, it is because Lester has made him larger than life from the very first

page.Keats's voice, on the other hand, is quite different from Small's balladry and Lester's raconteuring. Using sparse prose poetry, Keats moves quickly through his story, often only alluding to details. It is not until well into the book, at the point where John Henry races the steam drill, that Keats's voice begins to gather momen- tum, rather like a locomotive whose force and sound intensify as it draws

height Keats's narrative comes at the point where John Henry, sensing victory is close at hand, grabs two twenty-pound hammers:

"Hand me that twenty-pound ham-

mer, L'il Bill!"

Harder and faster crashed the hammer.

Great chunks of rock fell as John

Henry ripped

hole after hole into the tunnel wall.

The machine rattled and whistled and

drilled even faster.

Friends doused John Henry and L'il

Bill with cold water

to keep them going.

Then John Henry took a deep breath,

picked up two sledge hammers, and


"Ain't no hammers

Strike like fire,

Strike like lightning, Lawd,

And I won't tire!"

"Hammers like this, Lawd,

There's never been!

I'll keep swingin' 'em, Lawd,

Until we win!" (21,24)

Nature also plays a significant, but jifferent role in each story. For Keats, nature is an element to be conquered. rhis attitude is consistent from the ini- :ial pages of the book, where nature ;tops to pay homage to the infant John Henry, to the foreman's soliloquy on iynamiting and tunnel-making, and 'inally to John Henry's climatic ham- mering through the mountainside. Set .n the arid West, rather than the lush nountains of West Virginia, Keats's andscapes tend to give way to the cen- :rality of his characters; they literally ?atten out. Nature is clearly-both ~isuallyand textually-subservient to nan.

Lester, on the other hand, is more :omplex in his use of natural'imagery. ;ranted nature stops to pay homage to ohn Henry upon his birth, and John lenry shows a commanding ability lver nature at every turn, yet nature is ~othservant and friend, as is effective- y demonstrated by the animals that :ome to visit him at his birth, in the ;un and moon that continually peer lver the mountain at him, and in the .ainbow that wraps around his shoul- lers "like love." John Henry is, howev-


er, befriended by nature not because he dominates it, but because he under- stands it. John Henry is more a caretak- er or steward-a black Johnny Appleseed, if you will-than an invad- ing conqueror.

Small uses the image of nature in a very different way. When John Henry hears for the third time of the arrival of Josiah Haley


Henrv exclaims: sion inherent in the conflict

"A man can leave for the represent truer between John Henry, an ex- city, they say, not slave, and white railroad He can leave for to ramble bosses notorious for their and roam. only of John exploitation of black labor-

But wherever he go, a bit of these hills Henry but of ers.

Brett Williams points

Stay wit him, callin him

home. America as out some of the gruesome

gon be pushed,

Till they ain't no place to


Time come when a man gotta make a


And he ain't gon move no mo'.

"I'm home, L'il Bill, and I'm home for


It's a feelin in my bones and skin.

They ain't no man, ain't no machine

Ever make me leave agin." (9)

John Henry's appeal to his homeland is much more than a sentimental appeal to nature; a free, self-determined man, John Henry is exercising his political will. Nature, for Small, represents the embodiment of all that it means t~ be free-to have a home, a piece of land, a place to work, But John Henry is not fighting for home or land or work, but for his very soul.

Whereas nature forms one of the central images of the John Henry story, man and machine com- bine to form one of its most explicit motifs, and again each author handles this motif differently. In a departure from tradition, Keats sets the legend in the Western frontier wilderness, and alludes to "Indian lands" and "stam- peding buffalo herds." He does so in order to lament the eclipse of the "rugged individual" by the monoto- nous but forward-moving drone of modern technology. John Henry's

death svmbolizes for Keats

J -

the waning of the prized

days of industrial expansion, especially related to railroad tunneling. Workers-many of them ex-slaves- died from a variety of afflictions (tun- nel sickness, cave-ins, explosions, acci- dents, mistreatment, etc.). Their bodies were simply tossed in a rock fill near the tunnel's entrance, their deaths sel- dom reported. There was, in general, ''a seemingly unfathomable lack of concern for working c~nditions" (7).

For Lester and Small, racial identi- ty is significant. This is demonstrated primarily by their prominent represen- tation of the owner of the steam drill, a white industrial boss, rather than the steam drill itself. Small, more straight- forward about the underlying political realities than Lester, puts the conflict between John Henry and his white counterpart, steam drill owner Josiah Haley, front and center. When both men first face off against each other outside John Henry's cabin, they stand defiant, feet apart, arms akimbo-both equally determined to beat the other. Their animosity is further underscored when Josiah Haley bets the crew boss, Cap'n Tommy, that his machine will outdrive John Henry: "There ain't no uppity, loudmouth boy / Beat the Haley Steam Drill yet." Calling John Henry an "uppity, loudmouth boy" is an obvious racial slur, and it places in clear relief the political content of Small's retelling.

For Small, the legend of John Henry has more in common with John Brown than it does with Paul Bunyan, or Pecos Bill, or any other tall-tale fig- ure, as Keats, and to some extent Lester, might have us believe. In this respect, Small's interpretation is closer to the original spirit of the "protest songs" (Williams 110) that rail drivers sang to lament their dreadful situation.

A second motif that runs through- out all three stories involves the quest for justice, equality, and freedom. Keats, a pan-culturalist, presents a melting pot of working-class people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. Writing at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Keats is particularly sensi- tive to issues of equality, but his utopi- an view is still clearly Anglo-centric. Although one of the first to cast people of color in central roles in his stories, and certainly ahead of his time in this respect, Keats fails to deal with the political realities people of color encounter growing up in white America.

Lester and Small, on the other hand, position themselves firmly with- in the black community. Lester, whose political temperament also reflects the influence of the Civil Rights Movement, understands implicitly the black experience in America, and the inalienable constitutional rights afford- ed-but never fully realized by-that community. The transcendent quality Lester seeks-and ultimately achieves-is a product of the hope he continues to hold out for an America free from racial inequality. Infusing his story with the imagery of nature, the Bible, and American liberal politics, Lester consciously sees in John Henry the hopes and dreams of another prominent African American hero-the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Comparing the two personalities, Lester writes in the foreword to the book: "I'm not certain what the connec- tion is between John Henry and King. However, I suspect it is the connection all of us feel to both figures-namely, to have the courage to hammer until our hearts break and to leave our mourners smiling in their tears."

Small, on the other hand, sees little justice in the American system. It is a system intolerably controlled by white America, unjustly rigged to hold down its downtrodden and poor. Small makes it crystal clear that John Henry's fight is against the white man. When John Henry finally squares off against the indomitable Josiah Haley, the speech he delivers is not about the "red shale hills" of West Virginia, but about the very nature of man's soul:

"Do that machine got a broad ole back,

Big heart, and a callused hand?

Do it move to the rhythm of the ringin


And grunt when the hammer land?

"Do it ache and sweat in the blisterin


Do it choke on the dust of stone?

Do that machine got a song to sing

And a soul to call its own?" (15)

This is the crux of Small's message. It is the struggle to save man's soul-the black man's soul-in the face of three centuries of white oppression. Josiah Haley's steam-driven, hard-rock drill is only one more manifestation of this oppression. When John Henry dies after beating Haley's drill, however, he doesn't die a hero, but he dies, as Williams has suggested, a martyr, another victim of the white man's sub- jugation.

Like Lester, Small appeals to a

greater authority, but it is not to the

American Constitution; it is to God

Almighty Himself:

"Gon get me a crown," John Henry


"But it ain't gon be down here.

God must be needin some steel drivin


He callin right in my ear.


"Come lay my hammer by my side:
tially through the retelling provided by I sho' nuff take it along.

Ezra Jack Keats. Published at the

Ole Titus, he jes a-waitin up yonder,

Singin hm a shaker song." (25) height of Keats's artistic powers, it has stood the test of time-some thirty

This appeal to God is significant in dis- years! It is time, however, especially tinguishing Lester's more liberal poli- with Lester's and Small's retellings, tics (with his continued trust in the that we reconsider its staying power.

basic tenets of justice, equality, and Did Keats portray an immortal John freedom embedded in the Henry, a truly transcendent legendary

Constitution) from Small's more prag- matic but bleak political outlook. figure? Or, is it that for the last thirty However, on a more practical level, years we have not had the courage or

Small's appeal to God reflects a basic desire or wisdom to tell the story from belief held in the black community: a more Afro-centric perspective? I'm "Through religion, slaves looked to afraid the latter is true.

Old Testament precedents which But we can hope, along with John promised confrontation and deliver- Henry, that American culture is chang- ance in this world, not the next. The ing; its doors are opening; its riches heroes celebrated in spirituals were and spoils are becoming more accessi- men who took on a more powerful but ble to all of us, notwithstanding our overbearing authority and defeated it, ethnic or racial backgrounds. Lester's thus liberating a people chosen by God and Small's retellings encourage us; as special" (Williams 116).

they represent truer pictures not only of John Henry but of America as well. To this end, both retellings add signifi-

The legend of John Henry has been cantly to the John Henry legend and with us for a long time. As a pic- substantially to the body of children's ture book, we have known it substan- folk literature.

Works Blassinggame, Wyatt. John Henry and Paul Bunyan Play Baseball. Champaign: Garrard, 1971. Jensen, Patricia. John Henry and His Mighty Hammer. Mahwah: Troll, 1993.


Keats, Ezra Jack. John Henry: An American Legend. New York: Pantheon, 1965. Lester, Julius. John Henry. New York: Dial, 1994. Nader, C. J. John Henry, The Steel-Driving Man. Mahwah: Troll, 1980. Sanfield, Steve. A Natural Man: The True Story of John Henry. Boston: Godine, 1991. Small, Terry. The Legend of John Henry. New York: Doubleday, 1994. Stein, R. Conrad. Steel Driving Man: The Legend of John Henry. Chicago: Children's P, 1969. Williams, Brett. John Henry: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport: Greenwood P, 1983.

"Long as he move, he well. facts indicative ouf the early

Lester's and

and his steam drill, he American ideal of individ- makes a firm decision to Small's ualism. It is in this respect stay and fight. Facing the that Keat's John ~enri "red shale hills" of West retelli ngS of the gains widespread appeal, Virginia, calling them a part John Henry but at the price of ignoring of "this soul of mine," John the underlying racial ten-

It is at this point in the narration that the sequence of events in all three stories is most similar. First, there is a preliminary event which involves an episode with John Henry and his crew; then John Henry's race against the steam drill is highlighted. As before, Keats and Lester are more similar in their narration than Small. In a further demonstration of character, Keats and Lester place John Henry in the hero's role: Keats's John Henry saves his crew's life by preventing an untimely explosion; Lester's John Henry saves his crew's dignity by single-handedly paving a new road. Small's preliminary event takes quite a different turn: When Josiah Haley appears in camp with his new-fangled invention, John Henry and his crew lose their jobs. This humiliation intensifies the animosity already felt between Josiah Haley and John Henry. Thus, whereas Keats's and Lester's preliminary event portends a greater physical challenge, Small's pre- liminary event signals a greater psychological battle, a battle of wills.

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