John Henry said to his cap'n one day
That a man was a natural man
And before he'd let that steam drill run
He'd die with his hammer in his hand,
Die with his hammer in his hand.
For many years tales have been told and songs have been sung about John Henry, the American Negro folk hero. Tales and songs alike say he died with his hammer in his hand—yes, beat the double-jointed steam drill, then died with his hammer in his hand.
No such thing!
Because John Henry was a natural man and the greatest steel-driver that ever was. He was almost as tall as a boxcar is long. His arms were thicker than the cross-ties on the railroad. Whenever he raised his forty-pound hammer, it made a rainbow around his shoulder. And when he brought his hammer down, folks three hundred miles away heard an awful rumbling sound.
Now, how could a steam drill send a man like that to his lonely grave? Well, it didn't—and this rip-roaring, brand-new version of the John Henry legend gives us the true facts, from the time John Henry got a job building the Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia to the day he ran that steam drill right into the ground. In between, we meet his wife, Pollie Ann, who drove steel like a man, and his shaker, Li'l Willie. We witness the epic race between John Henry and the steam drill and learn, among other things, how he attended his own funeral, and how Pollie Ann sent him back to West Virginia to conquer the steam drill and complete the Big Bend Tunnel almost single-handed.
Once again, in a story filled with the bustle of big men doing big jobs, with the rhythm of work chants, spirituals, and blues, Irwin Shapiro has added to our store of American tall tales.
—from the dust jacket
Did you find this review helpful?