Peter Turner, asked, on 12-Feb-98, "Does anyone know what "John Henry" is really about? Its first impression is of the power of the human spirit and the often inspiring nature of tragedy. This interpretation makes us take the song at its word. But I've heard it argued that we should be more skeptical in interpreting the lyrics, that the song actually works in favor of the railroad bosses and against the men who work for them...."
Phillips Barry has argued that the John Henry text and tune show strong white influences - elements of the text may derive from old British ballads and the tune is identified with one used by mountain whites for the ballad "Earl Brand" (Child No. 7).
The oldest known version of "John Henry, The Steel Driving Man," may be the one on the Blankenship broadside, believed by Guy Benton Johnson to date to 1900 or before. (However, MacEdward Leach suspects that it is "from the twenties.")
The Blankenship broadside contains language that is more literary than that usually recovered from singers. Although Leach suspects that it is the work of a "hack writer to capitalize on a growing popularity of John Henry," I think it could be the other way around - the folk versions could have sprung from a more literary source.
In any event, I think that the Blankenship broadside is relevant to the point Peter makes. I quote the first two verses below.
John Henry was a railroad man,
He worked from six 'til five,
"Raise 'em up bullies and let 'em drop down,
I'll beat you to the bottom or die."
John Henry said to his captain:
"You are nothing but a common man,
Before that steam drill shall beat me down,
I'll die with my hammer in my hand."
Here "Raise 'em up bullies and let 'em drop down" sounds much more British, to me, than American Negro speech.
Verse two is the killer. Where most collected versions have John Henry saying to his captain, "A man ain't nothing but a man, etc."; here he says "You are nothing but a common man, etc." In the first instance, John Henry is talking about himself - he means "I am nothing but a man," meaning "I'm not superhuman." In the Blankenship broadside, saying to the captain, "You are nothing but a common man, etc.," seems to mean "You're just a man, but even so, I'm so dedicated to you that I'm going to beat that steam drill for you."
This is the kind of attitude in blacks that whites admired, of course, so it can be seen as a natural effusion of a white author.
Of course, this whole discussion assumes that John Henry was black. There's nothing in the Blankenship broadside to indicate that, nor is there is most versions. A few of Johnson's informants insisted that he was, in fact, white. If he was white, that changes the whole thing a little.
Even so, the fact of the matter is that most blacks who sang the song thought of him as black. No wonder they changed "You are nothing but a common man" to "A man ain't nothin' but a man."