John Henry Legend

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John Henry Legend

"John Henry said to the Captain,
'A man ain't nothing but a man
But before I let that steam drill drive me down
I'll die with this hammer in my hand.'"

It was 1870. The railroad was edging westward, and new steam-powered machines were edging laborers out of jobs.

Along came John Henry -- over seven feet tall, some say, and strong as thirty men -- and challenged the steam drill to a race. Side by side they worked into the night, boring a mile-long tunnel into the West Virginia mountain. Finally, John Henry broke through to the other side, and beat the steam drill.

But then John Henry "laid down his hammer and he died."

Over a hundred years later, the struggle of John Henry, the steel drivin' man, is still told in legend and ballad. As relevant now as ever, this classic of American folklore is a powerful symbol of the conflict between humans and technological progress.

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Copyright © 1999–2005, Ginna Allison. All rights reserved.

Contact: ginna @ wormlips [dot] com.