John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead relates the legend or "ballad" of John Henry who was, according to information supplied to journalist J Sutter, "a magnificent specimen... one of the handsomest men in the country." What is in dispute is whether as a digger on the railroad he ever proves his worth by drilling faster with his hammer than a "steam drill," which results in his death immediately thereafter. This is a point of contention and essential to the legend. In the prologue, some claim that he dies immediately after having won the contest while others claim he is hanged for murder and still others say that he was in an accident. There is also much dispute as to whether steam drills were in use during his era or only later.
The main speaker is J Sutter or "J" and he will use his research to establish the real story behind John Henry. This is why the prologue is essential. Sutter has apparently placed an advertisement for information and these are the responses. Therefore, it commences with the unreliable accounts of old men who knew or knew of John Henry. There is a prisoner who has apparently gone to great lengths to verify his story by speaking to other prisoners. There is Harvey Hicks who has heard that Henry "could drill more steel than any two men of his day." There is a "steam shovel operator" who never knew John Henry but who can attest to his abilities to drill. There are also others who offer snippets of information based mainly on the songs that have been passed on and which originate with John Henry. There is a "Rambler" who speaks proudly of the songs but most cannot claim to have actually known John Henry. Sutter will discount much of what they have to say.