With origins dating back to the Reconstruction era, the epic tale of John Henry has been told countless times. In its many forms, the legend tells of a large black man working on the railroad who goes toe-to-toe with a machine to determine who could hammer the most steel into solid rock. Henry wins the battle, but loses his life in the process.
Many singers have taken on this struggle between man and machine, with versions crossing over boundaries of race, genre, language and recording technology. “‘John Henry’ has become an American song,” historian Scott Reynolds Nelson wrote in his book Ain’t Nothing But A Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry. “And every group that sings it leaves traces in the lines and the verses they add.”