(a tall tale of West Virginia)
John Henry figured this was a lucky year, 1872. “Polly Ann,” he told his beloved wife, “nine is my lucky number, and one plus eight is nine, and so is seven plus two. There are nine letters in my name, so I know this is our year!”
John Henry had been a slave until emancipation, but now he had discovered his calling and was working for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. Ever since he was a little boy, he’d loved to play with his father’s hammers. Now he was being paid to pound those hammers into steel.
The C&O wasn’t a huge railroad, but it was important, and, like the others — the Santa Fe and the Southern Pacific and the Western and the Atlantic and lots more — it signified changes happening in America. People were moving around. Railroads were taking them places.
Captain Tommy was John Henry’s boss in the Big Bend Tunnel down in West Virginia. All the men drove long rods of steel into rock, and when the holes were deep enough, they poured nitroglycerin into the holes and blew away the rock.
But John Henry was the biggest, strongest man of all, born to be a steel-driving man, and, like he told his boss when they met, he could drive more steel than 10 other men altogether.
When John Henry said that, naturally Captain Tommy thought he was bragging. He didn’t like that, so he called Li’l Bill to come shake for this new man — the shaker is the man who holds the steel. And he told the rest to stand back and be ready to laugh.
So Li’l Bill held the steel, and John Henry took those hammers in his hands, and he got that feeling in his stomach, chest, shoulders, arms and legs, and with a big, strong voice he began to sing.
“Hammer, wham, hammer, ring,
While I sing, hear me sing.
No hammer rings like mine,
Rings like gold, ain’t that fine.
Rings like silver, peal on peal
Into the rock, driving the steel.”
The men started to laugh, but when John Henry swung those hammers in a huge rainbow arc over his head, and when they saw the way Li’l Bill had to loosen and turn the steel after each blow, they stopped laughing and stared.
“Stop a minute, John Henry,” Captain Tommy said. “Let me inspect your work.”
Right away he realized John Henry wasn’t bragging.
“You’re amazing,” Captain Tommy said.
Polly Ann laughed. “Of course he is,” she said, and that began a happy relationship.
Pounding steel is hard work, of course. Smoke from the lamps and dust from the shale were so thick that sometimes the men couldn’t even see their own hands. But John Henry loved his work, and wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Then one day a man came along with a fast patter and tried to sell Captain Tommy a steam drill.
“This machine can out-drill 20 men,” the man said, “and it doesn’t eat or rest, either.”
But Captain Tommy liked John Henry, so he came up with an idea. “We’ll have a race,” he said. “If the steam drill wins, I’ll buy it. If John Henry wins, you give me the steam drill and $500.”
“Fine,” the salesman agreed.
Naturally, John Henry didn’t want a machine taking his place. His work made him as happy as his beloved wife, Polly Ann, so he agreed.
On the day of the race, all the steel-drivers in the county came out to see, because everyone had heard of John Henry, the biggest, bravest, boldest steel man anyone had ever seen. They all gathered to watch at the mouth of the tunnel, where blacksmith shops sharpened the steels and fixed the hammers, and where everyone could see.
The blacksmiths sharpened the drills, the steam in the engine rose, and the carriers were ready with pads on their shoulders to carry sharpened steels from the shop. With one minute to go, the steam drill whistled.
John Henry lifted his hammers.
Captain Tommy dropped his hat in the dust and shouted, “Go!”
And the race began.
That steam drill was chugging, and John Henry was swinging. And, naturally, John Henry was singing all the hammer songs he knew as the steel rang and the carriers trotted back and forth from the blacksmith shops. The crowd watched intently and cheered.
John Henry took the lead, but the salesman wasn’t worried, or if he was, you couldn’t tell from his talk. But John Henry kept smashing hard rock and appeared to grow stronger. That’s when the salesman grew pale.
John Henry swung those hammers, stopping once an hour to drink water from the dipper Polly Ann carried. For six hours, then seven and eight, that hammer rang like gold.
As the eighth hour was ending, Captain Tommy said, “How you doing, John Henry?”
For the first time, John Henry sighed. “It’s tough,” he sang, “but no machine is going to beat John Henry!”
But he had stopped singing and the only sound was the hammering ring and the chug-chugging of the drill.
At last, the ninth hour ended and Captain Tommy cried, “The race is over!”
Everything stopped, and the captain counted the holes.
“John Henry won!” he cried. “Three holes ahead of the steam drill!” And everyone cheered, but John Henry was on the ground, and Polly Ann was giving him a drink of water. Tears were falling from her eyes.
Soon after that, John Henry died. A big black cloud covered the sky because everybody in the whole county was sad. But they buried him in the hillside with those hammers in his hands.