John Henry: The Legend
Coosa Tunnel, Columbus & Western Railroad - 15 miles east of Birmingham, Alabama
(Stovall & Havens, 1895)
So, was John Henry a freed slave from Norfolk, Virginia who took a job as a steel driver with the C&O Railroad? Or was he hand drilling a tunnel for the C&W Railroad in Alabama? There is also the possibility that a "real" John Henry never existed. The answer may have been lost to time.
While the debate continues over the identity of John Henry the legend has been interpreted in different ways as well. The story of the man who challenged the mechanization of his job is one that many workers today can emphasize with. But even here the story has a strange twist. The hero of the story wins the race with the steam drill, yet loses his life as a direct result. I’ve always found this part of the story a bit odd.
There seems to be almost as much controversy about the legend as there is about the man. Whatever the man or meaning, the song has remained a favorite for over a century.
I hope that riders on the Bus in the U.S. watched our fine senator from Virginia, Jim Webb, give the response to the State of the Union address. Here in Virginia we have a long history of proud statesmen starting with Thomas Jefferson, and we are right proud of our new senator, Jim Webb.