What is a myth? If you asked most adults and children you would probably get answers of “Zeus” and “Thor,” but I would contend there are many more. To me, once a character becomes so recognizable that stories may be told of them without remaining faithful to the orignal, they’ve become a myth. Not the most literary analysis, but there you go. Sherlock Holmes would be a perfect example. Yes, there is a source material, but there have been so many adaptations of the character that by now he’s become myth. The recent BBC show Sherlock keeps the main tenants of Doyle’s detective, but both modernizes and adapts him in amazing ways. So with that definition out of the way, I want to talk about the myth of John Henry….
Need a little refresher course? Let Harry Belafonte tell you the tale…
For nearly half a century, the most popular version of the John Henry story has been that of the remarkable Ezra Jack Keats John Henry, an American Man (1965) is memorable book for several reasons. For one, Keats’ striking stylized illustrations feature his trademark collage style and bright colors. Towards the end, there’s a fantastic illustration of Henry swinging through the rock with a hammer in each hand, and you can almost hear the sound ringing out from the pages. The book is still popular, nearly 50 years from when it was first published. Other retellings have been popular, but none (so far) has had the staying power of Keats. This achievement is even more remarkable since their were few if any picture books at the time for children featuring African Americans. This would shift starting in the 1960’s (the next wave would include Lester and Pinkney), but Keats was one of the pioneers. One of the main reasons for the book’s staying power is the way Keats’ positions the character as an Everyman,one who helps all others as he encounters them.
Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney’s John Henry (1994) frames the situation differently. In Lester and Pinkney’s retelling, John Henry is positioned firmly within the context of African American History. As Lester writes in his introduction: “I’m not certain what the connection is between John Henry and King. However, I suspect it is the connection all of us feel to both figures – namely, to have the courage to hammer until our hearts break and to leave our mourners smiling in their tears.” Lester takes some chances in trying to both connect his retelling to previous versions, as well as adapt the tale for a modern audience, and like all experiments this doesn’t work for everyone. In particular, readers seem confused by John Henry using his super human strength to add a jacuzzi to his folks home. For many adults fondly remembering both the John Henry songs and stories they grew up with, this is a difficult adaptation to accept.
Perhaps my favorite view of the legend is Scott Reynold Nelson’s Aint Nothin but a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry (2007). Aimed at older readers, the book explores the roots of the John Henry legend as historian Nelson traces the roots of the song back and forth through history, uncovering everything from Railroad history to Reconstruction to the creation of blues and rock & roll. Recommended once you’ve moved beyond Lester and Keats.
We create legends for a reason. Some last, others do not. Part of the mission of The Looking Glass is to ensure that important legends last into the future, and John Henry is one that represents the past social struggles of our nation in ways that other American myths do not (Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan come to mind). So sing with me now. . .
Yes I’ll die with a hammer in my hand, lord lord, I’ll die with a hammer in my hand
To Learn More:
Belafonte, Harry (1959). Belafonte Live at Carnegie Hall. RCA.
Nelson, Scott Reynold. (2006). Steel Drivin Man: John Henry: the Untold Story of an American Legend. Oxford University Press.
Nikola-Lisa, W. (1998). John Henry, than and Now. African American Review 32(1). pp. 51-56ADDENDUM (5/19) John Henry did not die. At least not in being a relevant character in fiction. He is one of the major characters in John Claude Bemis’ Nine Pound Hammer, the first book in his Clock Work Dark Trilogy. In fact, the title comes from John Henry’s Hammer. It’s a fun book, incorporating Americana, folk-legends, magic, pirates, mermaids, and adventure.