The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer (Malachi 3:5)

This week please read chapter 9, The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer, and chapter 10, Sunday Morning Coming Down of Richard Beck’s book Trains, Jesus, and Murder – The Gospel According to Johnny Cash.


John Henry is one of the great working-man legends of America from the late 1800s. Like Paul Buyan for lumberjacks or Casey Jones for railroad engineers, John Henry was the great legend for those men that laid the tracks and build the tunnels for American railroads. The legend of John Henry begins in southeast West Virginia near the town of Talcott at the Big Ben Tunnel.

The Chesapeake_& Ohio_Railway began in 1870 to link Richmond with the Ohio River. The C&O terminus at the Ohio became the town of Huntington, WV. The men who worked on the railroad were primarily former slaves. Coming into West Virginia, the railroad followed the Greenbrier River. At an eight-mile-long bend in the Greenbrier, the railway decided to build a 1.5-mile tunnel through the mountain instead. To build a tunnel, holes were drilled into the layers of rock using a hand drill and hammer. The holes were then filled with powder and blasted to make the rock small enough to remove from the tunnel.

In the legend, John Henry is a black man who works the hammer and the drill. But the railroad company brings in a steam drill to speed up the work and to replace men like him. John Henry takes up the challenge of man versus machine. On that day, John Henry drills faster and deeper than the machine, but that night he dies of exhaustion. He becomes a testament to the idea that hard-working men were being replaced by technology.


Johnny Cash uses the Legend of John Henry to tell us the story of the pitfalls facing most hard-working but financially insecure American families. The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer is a song about an incarcerated father, unpaid medical bills, generational poverty, racism, and, of course, machines replacing working men.

The song begins with John Henry’s father’s parting words to his son before the father goes to jail abandoning the young man and his family. The father tells him “to learn to ball a jack, learn to lay a track, learn to pick and shovel too” and he will always have a job. With their dad incarcerated, John Henry has to support his mom and siblings. When the children get sick and the doctor needs to be paid, John Henry goes to work.

He gets paid $0.35 per day of which $0.25 goes towards the unpaid medical bills. John Henry cannot work and save because he is always paying off a debt owed by his family. In doing his duty towards his family he will never escape his impoverished condition.

John Henry works for a foreman that only calls him “boy” and sees him not as a person but simply as a ball of muscles that work a drill. The foreman is pleased when the steam drill comes online so that he can discard John Henry. For the foreman, the man John Henry is simply a means of production like the steam drill.

John Henry has to work because he has “four little brothers and a baby sister” to support. He simply cannot give in to a machine taking his job. He takes up the challenge against the steam and prevails. However, the morning after he remarks that “this is the first time I ever watched the sun come up that I couldn’t come up with it.” Johny Henry never made it out of bed. He worked hard from sun-up to sundown all of his life, but he always lived on the edge of extreme poverty and financial ruin. He dies because he simply worked too hard.


As we looked at in the Introduction, Cash grew up on a family cotton farm in eastern Arkansas. His family worked hard, but never escaped their poverty. “The Legend of Johnny Henry’s Hammer” is one of the songs on Johnny Cash’s 1963 album, Blood, Sweat, and Tears. The album is a collection of songs about the inherent (but often ignored) dignity of and the suffering of hard-working men who can never get ahead. Cash sings about train conductors (Casey Jones), coal miners (Nine Pound Hammer), convict laborers (Chain Gang), and oil field workers (Roughnecks). Busted is an autobiographical song about a cotton farmer facing depressed prices, sick children, and too many bills to pay who has to swallow his pride and ask for financial help. If you the opportunity, please listen to the album.


“The Legend of John Henry” gives honor and dignity to the poor and disadvantaged, particularly those who wake up every morning, work hard, and often find themselves financially worse off at the end of the day. In America, we tend to worship wealth and success, and not necessarily hard work. The two are not directly related. Particularly in Myrtle Beach, our hardest workers are those in construction, hotel domestics, or fast-food workers. Many ride here on buses from all over the Pee Dee area to work for minimal wages, and ride home again. Most of these people are invisible to us. Most of their problems – living paycheck to paycheck, supporting family members, not having health insurance, and having to suffer daily indignities because there is nothing to fall back on – are invisible to us as well. What Jesus requires of us, is to see the dignity of everyone, not simply as the cog in the means of production, and to walk in solidarity with them. The problems that face hard working men and women today of which Cash sings, are still with us today.

If you wish to read a bit deeper on a Christian perspective on labor, a good starting point is Pope John Paul II’s On Human Work. The short encyclical provides a great biblical perspective on the dignity of work and speaks the gospel into our hyper-capitalist economy.


John Henry’s Pappy woke
him up one midnight
He said before the sheriff comes
I wanna tell you, listen boy,
Said learn to ball a jack, learn
to lay a track, learn to pick and
shovel too, and take my hammer,
it’ll do anything you tell it to

John Henry’s mammie had about a
dozen babies, John Henry’s pappy
broke jail about a dozen times
The babies all got sick and when
the doctor wanted money, he said
I’ll pay you quarter at a time,
startin’ tomorrow, that’s the pay
for a steel driver on this line

Then the section foreman said hey
hammer swinger, I see you brought
your own hammer boy, but what
else can all those muscles do?
And he said, I can turn a jack, I can
lay a track, I can pick and shovel too
(can you swing a hammer boy?)
I can I’ll do anything you hire me to

Now ain’t you something so high and
mighty with your muscles, just go ahead
pick up that hammer, pick up the hammer

He said get a rusty spike and swing it
down three times, I’ll pay you a nickel
a day for every inch you sink it to,
go on and do what you say you can do

With a steep nose hammer on a four-foot
switch handle, John Henry raised
it back till it touched his heels,
then the spike went through the cross
tie and it split it half in two,
35 cents a day for driven steel,
(sweat sweat boy, sweat,
you owe me two more swings)
I was born for driving steel

Well John Henry hammered in the
mountain, he’d give a grunt and he’d
give groan with every swing, the women
folks for miles around, heard him
and come down, to watch him make the
cold steel ring, Lord what a swinger,
just listen to that cold steel ring,

But the bad boss come up laughing at
John Henry,
Said you’re full of vinegar now
But you’re ’bout through, we’re gonna
get a steam drill to do your share of
drivin’, then what’s all them muscles
gonna do, huh John Henry, gonna take
a little bit of vinegar out of you

John Henry said I feed four little
brothers, and my baby sister’s walking
on her knees, did the Lord say that
machines should take the place of
And what’s a subsitute for
bread and beans, I ain’t seen it
Do engines get rewarded for their steam?

John Henry hid in a coal mine for his
dinner now, had thirty minutes to
rest before the bell, the mine boss
hollered get up whoever you are and
get a pick ax, give me enough coal to
start another hill, and keep it burning,
mine me enough to start another hill

John Henry said to his captain
A man ain’t nothin but a man, but
if you’ll bring that steam drill ’round,
I’ll beat it fair and honest
I’ll die with my hammer in my hand,
But I’ll be laughing, cuz
you can’t replace a steel drivin’ man

There was a big crowd of people at the
mountain, John Henry said to the steam
drill how is you, pardon me mister
steam drill, I suppose you didn’t
hear me, I said how you, well can you
turn a jack, can you lay a track,
can you pick and shovel too, listen
this hammer swingers talkin’ to you

2,000 people hollered go John Henry,
then somebody hollered the mountain’s
caving in, John Henry told the
captain, tell the kind folks not to
worry, that ain’t nothin but my hammer
suckin’ wind, keeps me breathing,
a steel driver’s muscle, I intend,

Captain tell the people move back
further, I’m at the finish line and I
ain’t no drill, she’s so far behind
you ain’t got the brains to quit it,
when she blows up she’ll scatter cross
the hills, Lord Lordy, when she blows
up she’ll scatter cross the hills

Well John Henry had a little woman, I
believe the lady’s name was Polly Ann,
yeah, that was his good woman
John Henry threw his hammer
Over his shoulder and went on home
He laid down to rest his weary back
And early next morning
he said come here Polly Ann come here
sugar, ya know I believe this is the
first time I ever watched the sun come
up that I couldn’t come up with it

Take my hammer Polly Ann and go to
that railroad, swing that hammer
like you seen me do it, and when you
swing with a lead man, they’ll all know
they’ll all know you’re John Henry’s
woman, but tell them that’s
not all you can do, tell em I can
hoist a jack, and I can lay a track,
I can pick and shovel too, ain’t no
machine can, that’s been proved to you

There was a big crowd of mourners at the
church house, the section hands laid
him in the sand, trains go by on the
rails John Henry laid, they slow down
and take off their hats, the men do,
when they come to the place John Henry’s
laid, resting his back, some say mornin’
steel driver you sure was a hammer
swinger, then they go along pickin’ up
speed, clikty clak, clikty clak, down
there lies a steel driven man oh Lord,
down there lies a steel driven man,
down there lies a steel driven man oh
Lord, down there lies a steel driven man

Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. Malachi 3:5

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