Lewis “Big Sweet” Hairston (1929-?) performs his rendition of the African American folk ballad “John Henry”.
The story of John Henry is also told in the form of a legend, and generally follows the premise that John Henry was a steel driver (During the days of railway development and construction through out the United States), and that, at some point during his career, he is challenged by a steam-powered drilling machine which threatened to replace the work of steel drivers like Henry and his coworkers.
In an attempt to show his worth and secure the future of his career path, Henry challenged the foreman (Or “captain”) to a race with the machine to see who could finish their work quicker. Henry proves to be faster and more efficient (And in some accounts the machine malfunctions or even explodes after reaching its limit), however, he ultimately succumbs to exhaustion.
Details that may or may not be omitted from some versions of the story or ballad include John Henry having a wife, with details of her ranging from her simply being noted to wear a red dress, to her name being Polly Anne. Polly Anne is either usually portrayed as running to John Henry’s lifeless body to mourn him, or being able to “drive steel like a man” herself. Some versions also mention that John Henry has kids, or one child, usually a son, who dramatically declares in the honor of his father that he will become a “steel driving man” when he grows up.
Like much folklore in most cultures, the origin of the story and whether it began as a song or a legend first is unclear, and some have even speculated that it recounts true (Albeit, highly embellished) events.
Note: This recording was conducted by ethnomusicologist Kip Lornell in the home of Hairston on September 28th, 1977.