John Henry

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Hero of a cycle of Negro ballads and tall tales, a natchal man,” born in the Black River country, where the sun don't never shine,” who is sometimes a steel driver in the building of the Yaller Dog” or Yaller Ball” railroad line for Mister Billie Bob Russell,” sometimes a roustabout on riverboats. Other figures in the ballads and tales include John Hardy, the gambler; innumerable rivals of John Henry, all named Sam; and the women, Poor Selma, Julie Ann, and Ruby. John Henry's chief exploit is his competition with a steam drill in driving steel, in which he drives faster than the machine, but dies, with his hammer in his hand,” as a result of the exertion. In some versions, the contest is with a steam winch in loading cotton on a riverboat. The legend seems to have originated c.1870, when an actual John Henry of such a contest may have existed. The ballads about John Hardy may have arisen from the same source, but their hero differs from John Henry in that he comes to a bad end, murdering a man and dying on the gallows. Roark Bradford's John Henry (1931) combines and reconciles the various tales, while Guy B. Johnson's John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend (1931) is a collection of variants of the ballads.

Subjects: Literature.

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