The John Henry wars

  • M Berman
Keywords: folklore, John Henry


In this academically eclectic essay, I look at the complex role of oral literature in society through a case study of the famous American legend of John Henry. I am chiefly concerned with (a) the multiple claims of the hero's origin, b) the conflicting opinions of folklorists, (c) the question of the legend's historicity, and finally, d) how all three areas intersect. In the end, I find that much is at stake in the answer to my initial question: Who was John Henry? Scholars have devoted their careers to this query. African Americans and labor unions, among other groups, have each claimed him as their representative. American cities have built monuments to him, held festivals to celebrate his feats, and released postage stamps with his likeness, all with the intention of engraining the legend into the lore of their particular jurisdictions. Meanwhile, musicians and storytellers have grappled fiercely with academics, the former accusing the latter of ruining the legend through endless analysis. As the title suggests, these ‘wars' over this national icon unearth the subtleties of the political economy of labor, the ironies of racial identity, and the intricate relationship between folklore and fiction.

Keywords:folklore, John Henry

MARANG: Journal of Language and Literature Vol. 17 2007: pp. 71-82

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eISSN: 1816-7659