“John Henry” is a classic American ballad. Research indicates that it may have been based on a real incident that happened during the 19th century when railroads were being built. Several locations have been suggested, including West Virginia, Virginia, and Alabama.
The hero of the song is a man who worked as a “driver,” half of a steel-driving team that bored holes into the mountains in order to build tunnels for the trains to come through. The other half of the team was a “shaker,” who held a long iron rod absolutely still while the driver used a big hammer to hit the rod on the head and drive it into the mountain. When they were finished they would pull the rod out, leaving a long hole. Then they filled the hole with dynamite to blow out that section of the mountain. They would then clear out the rubble that had been blown out. This process was completed until there was a tunnel blown through the mountain. It took great strength and skill to do this work safely.
In the song, John Henry is one of the best drivers around. But a machine has been invented that will replace the driving team. Worried about losing their jobs to the machine, John Henry and his shaker challenge the inventor to a contest to see whether the team or the machine can do the work faster and better. John Henry wins the contest, but dies shortly afterwards.
The John Henry legend has been the subject of books and a 1940 stage musical. The rock group They Might Be Giants named their 1994 album “John Henry,” referencing a machine being defeated by a human.
1. Discuss what a ballad is. How is this song a ballad? Listen to other ballads and write down characteristics they have in common.
2. Explore the historical context of this song. What role did the railroads play in American life in the 19th century? Why were they so important?
3. Discuss the ideas of things being done by people and by machines. What other things can students think of that were once primarily done by people that are now done by machines? Can students think of any contests between humans and machines (e.g., the “Jeopardy” competition involving the IBM computer Einstein)
4. Study other people, real and fictional, who took on great powers. At what cost are these people heroes? Why do we admire them?
5. Discuss how McCutcheon uses dynamics to emphasize and add drama to certain parts of the song, such as the phrases “man ain’t nothin’ but a man,” “swinging 26 pounds,” and “laid down his hammer and died.” How does his use of dynamics make the song more interesting? How does it help tell the story? Invite individual students to read the lyrics, using their own dynamic contrasts to put drama into the reading, then discuss the effect it had on listeners.