John Henry is an American folk hero, who has been the subject of numerous songs, stories, plays, and novels.
John Henry also served as a mythical representation of a group within the melting pot of the 19th-century working class. In the most popular version of the story, Henry is born into the world big and strong. He grows to become the greatest “steel-driver” in the mid-century push to erect the railroads across the mountains to the West.
When the owner of the railroad buys a steam-powered hammer to do the work of his mostly black driving crew, to save his job and the jobs of his men, John Henry challenges the owner to a contest: himself alone versus the steam hammer. John Henry beats the machine, but exhausted, collapses, and dies.