John Henry Days


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From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Underground Railroad

Colson Whitehead’s triumphant novel is on one level a multifaceted retelling of the story of John Henry, the black steel-driver who died outracing a machine designed to replace him. On another level it’s the story of a disaffected, middle-aged black journalist on a mission to set a record for junketeering who attends the annual John Henry Days festival. It is also a high-velocity thrill ride through the tunnel where American legend gives way to American pop culture, replete with p. r. flacks, stamp collectors, blues men , and turn-of-the-century song pluggers. John Henry Days is an acrobatic, intellectually dazzling, and laugh-out-loud funny book that will be read and talked about for years to come.


Praise for Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist:

"Magical... [The Intuitionist] ranks alongside Catch-22, V, The Bluest Eye, and other groundbreaking first novels... Whitehead shares Heller's sense of the absurd, Pynchon's operatic expansiveness, and Morrison's deconstruction of race and racism." —San Francisco Chronicle

"An homage to the power of a writer's imagination."
Boston Globe

"Whitehead's writing is dazzling."
USA Today

"The freshest racial allegory since Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye."
—Walter Kirn, Time

"Brilliant... Whitehead carves out an exclusive space for himself in America's literary canon."
Washington Post Book World

"Ingenious and starkly original."
New York Times Book Review



About 45 years ago I was in Morgan County, Kentucky. There was a bunch of darkeys came from Miss. to assist in driving a tunnel at the head of Big Caney Creek for the O&K railroad. There is where I first heard this song, as they would sing it to keep time with their hammers.

HAVING SEEN YOUR advertisement in the Chicago Defender, I am answering your request for information, concerning the Old-Time Hero of the Big Bend Tunnel Days—or Mr. John Henry.

I have succeeded in recalling and piecing together 13 verses, dedicated to such a splendid and deserving character of by gone days. It was necessary to interview a number of Old-Timers of the Penitentiary to get some of the missing words and verify my recollections; so I only hope it will please you, and be what you wish.

In regards to the reality of John Henry, I would say he was a real live and powerful man, some 50 years ago, and actually died after beating a steam drill. His wife was a very small woman who loved John Henry with all her heart.

My Grand Father, on my mother's side, was a steel driver, and worked on all them big jobs through out the country in them days, when steam drills were not so popular. He was always boasting about his prowess with a hammer, claiming none could beat him but John Henry. He used to sing of John Henry, and tell of the old days when hammers and hammer men could do the work of the steam drills.

Being pretty young at the time, I can not now recall all the stories I heard, but I know John Henry, died some time in the eighties about 1881 or 1882, I'm sure which was a few years before I was born.

I am setting a price on this information; I am a prisoner here in the Ohio Penitentiary and without funds, so I will be pleased to expect what ever you care to offer.


IN 1890 PEOPLE around town here were singing the song of John Henry, a hammering man. I was working in an oyster house here in Norfolk, Va. for Fenerstein and Company, and I am 66 years old and still working for them people.

JOHN HENRY WAS a steel driver and was famous in the beginning of the building of the C&O Railroad. He was also a steel driver in the extension of the N&W Railroad. It was about 1872 that he was in this section. This was before the day of the steam drills and drill work was done by two powerful men who were special steel drillers. They struck the steel from each side and as they struck the steel they sang a song which they improvised as they worked. John Henry was the most famous steel driver ever known in southern West Virginia. He was a magnificent specimen of genus homo, was reported to be six feet two, and weighed two hundred and twenty-five or thirty pounds, was a straight as an arrow and was one of the handsomest men in the country—and, as one informant told me, was a black as a kittle in hell.

Whenever there was a spectacular performance along the line of drilling, John Henry was put on the job, and it is said he could drill more steel than any two men of his day. He was a great gambler and was notorious all through the country for his luck at gambling. To the dusky sex all through the country he was "the greatest ever," and he was admired and beloved by all the negro women from the southern West Virginia line to the C&O. In addition to this he could drink more whiskey, sit up all night and drive steel all day to a greater extent than any man at that time. A man of kind heart, very strong, pleasant address, yet a gambler, a roue, a drunkard and a fierce fighter.

MY NAME IS Harvey Hicks and I live in Evington, Virginia. I am writing in reference to your ad in the Chicago Defender. John Henry was a white man they say. He was a prisoner when he was driving steel in the Big Ben tunnel at the time, and he said he could beat the steam drill down. They told him if he did they would set him free. It is said he beat the steam drill about two minutes and a half and fell dead. He drove with a hammer in each hand, nine pound sledge.

MY UNCLE GUS (the man who raised my father) worked on the Cursey Mountain Tunnel and knew the man. He said he was Jamaican, yellow-complected, tall, and weighed about 200 pounds.


I AM A steam shovel operator or "runner" and have heard steel drivers sing "John Henry" all my life and there are probably lots of verses I never heard as it used to be that every new steel driving "nigger" had a new verse to "John Henry."

I never personally knew John Henry, but I have talked to many old-timers who did. He actually worked on the Chesapeake & Ohio Ry. for Langhorn & Langhorn and was able to drive 9 feet of steel faster than the steam drill could in Big Bend Tunnel. Then later he was hanged in Welch, Va., for murdering a man. After sifting out the "chaff" I think I can assure you above is correct.

I have heard three versions of the song, mostly in the same section of the country, that is West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina, seldom elsewhere except by men from one of the above states. I have worked all over the South, South West, and I have heard the John Henry song almost ever since I could remember, and it is the song I ever first remember of.

I THINK THIS John Henry stuff is just a tale someone started. My father worked for the Burleigh Drill Company and told me for a fact that no steam drill was ever used in the Big Bend Tunnel. He was a salesman for Burleigh.

JOHN HENRY WAS a native of Holly Springs, Mississippi, and was shipped to the Curzee mountain tunnel, Alabama, to work on the AGS Railway in 1880. I have been told that he did indeed beat the steam drill, but did not die that day. He was killed some time later during a cave-in.

HAVING BEEN BORN and raised in the state of Tennessee and, therefore, in sufficiently close contact with the negro element there, it happens I have heard these songs practically all my life, until I left that section of the country six years ago.

I have been informed that John Henry was a true character all right, a nigger whose vocation was driving steel during the construction of a tunnel on one of the Southern railways.

THE BALLAD, by special right, belongs to the railroad builders. John Henry was a railroad builder. It belongs to the pick-and-shovel men—to the skinners—to the steel drivers—to the men of the construction camps. It is sung by Negro laborers everywhere, and none can sing it as they sing it, because none honor and revere the memory of John Henry as much as do they. I have been a "Rambler" all my life—ever since I ran away from the "white folks" when twelve years old—and have worked with my people in railroad grading camps from the Great Lakes to Florida and from the Atlantic to the Missouri River, and wherever I have worked, I have always found someone who could and would sing of John Henry.

JOHN HENRY THE steel driving champion was a native of Alabama and from near Bessemer or Blackton. The steel driver was between the ages of 45 and 50 and weighed about 155 pounds. He was not a real black man, but more of a chocolate color. He was straight and well muscled.

THE LAST TIME I saw John Henry, who was called Big John Henry, was when a blast fell on him and another Negro. They were covered with blankets and carried out of the tunnel. I don't think John Henry was killed in the accident because I didn't hear of him being buried, and the bosses were always careful in looking after the injured and dead. I don't know a thing about John Henry driving steel in a contest with a steam drill, and I don't think I ever saw one at the tunnel. Hand drills were used in the tunnel. They were using an engine at shaft number one to raise the bucket up when we moved to the tunnel, but they didn't have any steam engine or steam drill in the tunnel.

I'VE HEARD THE song in a thousand different places, nigger extra gangs, hoboes of all kinds, coal miners and furnace men, river and wharf rats, beach combers and sailors, harvest hands and timber men. Some of them drunk and some of them sober. It is scattered over all the states and some places on the outside. I have heard any number of verses cribbed bodily from some other song or improvised to suit the occasion.

The opinion among hoboes, section men and others who sing the song is that John Henry was a Negro, "a coal black man" a partly forgotten verse says, "a big fellow," an old hobo once said. He claimed to have known him but he was drunk on Dago Red, so I'm discounting everything he said. I have met very few who claimed to have known him. The negroes of forty years ago regarded him as a hero of their race.

From the Hardcover edition.

Q & A

Q: One of the major themes of JOHN HENRY DAYS is the changing role of pop culture in American society. What about this subject appealed to you? Is a phenomenon like the myth of John Henry still possible today? What are the similarities and distinctions between the folk hero of 100 years ago and contemporary pop icons?

A: I've been interested in John Henry ever since I was a kid, and when I was thinking about what the book would be, I kept thinking about how each generation creates its own interpretation of the John Henry story, and each interpretation is shaped by the form in which it is received. In an intimate saloon, via sheet music, vinyl records then CDs, videotapes. And stamps. So the Rolling Stones appear, as avatars of a perfected mass culture, and simple balladeers appear, as representatives of a time when we shared out stories in the oral tradition. As a creature of the information age, the banality of a John Henry postage stamp struck me as a delightful absurdity. Is this what the great man had been reduced to? Who are the itinerant workers of today, and what kind of shovels do they use? Well, J. and his junketeer pals shovel it on quite well, in ironic counterpoint to John Henry 's railroad companions.

Q: You have worked as a journalist for many years. How did your experiences shape the character of J.? What is your relationship to him? Do you see yourself in J.?

A: Part of the fun of creating characters is trying to figure out where they diverge from you and where they intersect. Finding a way into characters that you have little in common with, like Lucien or Alphonse, is what keeps the job interesting. But then there's also the joy of writing about something you know pretty well--like churning out crappy copy, filing dumb stories, so that you can keep the electricity on. I worked for a couple of years at the Village Voice in New York (or the Downtown News, if you prefer), and I did my time working for shady web sites during the internet gold rush, and a lot of what I saw and experienced is in the book. J. is a bit of a sad case, but some of the dilemmas he faces are ones that I went through during my apprenticeship days. Back to the notion of fun--it's a pleasure to draw from your own life, but then you also get your kicks from making things up. So J. is a speculation, a sometimes ridiculous exaggeration of what might have been.

Q: We live in a media- and image-saturated culture--one the journalists depicted in JOHN HENRY DAYS both create and derive sustenance from (literally and figuratively). Are the lines between journalism, publicity, and advertising becoming blurred beyond recognition? Is J.'s cynicism justified? What media outlets do you turn to for news and entertainment?

A: I think I had my first suspicions about the media one day when I was in junior high, when I was watching "Entertainment Tonight" and I started to see a pattern. They were doing a piece on that night's Very Special Episode of "Diff'rent Strokes" and I went, "Wait a minute, why do they only run features on shows that are going to be aired that very same night"? My little twelve year old self was horrified--why the whole show was one big advertisement, and come to think of it, they never said anything negative about the projects they were covering. So I became a bit jaded a long time ago. There certainly is a lot of great journalism being produced these days, but when it comes to the Entertainment Combine, well, the Woodward and Bernsteins of pop culture are few and far between. And we are complicit as consumers, since we buy the magazines that have our celebrity favorites on the cover. The calculations of the media brokers are based on what the public wants, reads and watched. I'm certainly guilty--I'll watch any crappy television show and buy and insipid magazine if it will take my mind off things for a while.

Q: J's disillusionment and disaffection are clearly a product of our times. Meanwhile, John Henry's commitment to his work and family form a nice juxtaposition. How has the relationship of people to their work changed in the last 100 years, and how does this affect our public and private lives? How does it affect J. and John Henry?

A: Part of what makes the John Henry tale so interesting, is that such a larger-than-life struggle is so alien. It's hard to find the same kind of metaphorical resonance when you are driving a cab, selling mutual funds or writing novels. And yet we all have our own machines we are trying to beat. If we can't find them, we construct them. Part of the work I tried to do in the book was to collapse the distance between 1872 and 1996, to find ways that a modern reader can access the John Henry story, despite the radical social changes of the last 130 years.

Q: Of all the folk heroes represented in commemorative stamps in the novel, John Henry's story is the only one not exaggerated to the point of fantasy. Yet his exploits resonate most in the end. To what extent is his story a quintessentially American one? To what extent was the creation of his legend about race? Is that distinction even possible?

A: Right--is the distinction possible? When the contemporary inhabitants see John Henry, they see an American hero. When I first saw John Henry in a cartoon when I was eight years old, I saw an African-American legend. If you have a tale that means something different to every person that hears it, how can we even approach some kind of unified vision of the man? There are a lot of John Henrys in the book, and a lot of characters engaged in their own distinctive competitions--contests with technology, with obsolescence, with their own natures. The very thing that makes the story so dynamic--its mutability--is what makes it so elusive.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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