Who was John Henry? What details in the poem "John Henry" tell about his life and death?

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ms-mcgregor eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are many poems and ballad about the American folk hero John Henry. He is famous for racing against a steam powered hammer. He won the race but the effort killed him. In the 19th century he was seen as a symbol of a working man fighting the technology of the day that could replace working men. In "John Henry, Steel Driving Man", Henry is depicted as a "railroad man" who worked 11 hour days, "from six to five". When his captain buys a steam drill which could replace several men, Henry says, " Before that steam drill shall beat me down, I'll jar these mountains till they fall." So a contest is held with the "steam drill on the left" and John Henry "hammering on the right". Before the steam drill "could beat him down, He hammered his fool self to death." They carried the exhausted John Henry back home, where he died with these last words, "Give me a cool drink of water before I die." So although John Henry proved that he was more efficient than a steam drill, he worked himself to death and was replaced by the machine. But his legend lives on today in songs and poems and even a statue outside of Summers County, West Virginia.