John Henry's Song

Hemanga Biswas

John Henry, John Henry,

People called him John Henry

An engine made of flesh and blood

Sang to the beat

Of his hammer and drill

And worked all day night long

He was built like a great black boulder

His muscles glimmered like granite

Beat down his hammer to rocks on fire

And he made his work his life

The railway tunnels of West Virginia

Drilled through the rocky mountains

The rail tracks owe their

Life to the hammer

And to John Henry’s travails

John Henry’s lifelong companion,

Her name was Mary Magdalene

She came to the tracks and never looked back

Drawn by his hammer’s euphony

The white master demands more work,

He ushered in the steam drill ,

John Henry feared that his body at last

Would bow down to the machine

I shall outwork the machine,

Said John standing strong

Steam drills fought with his hammer from thence

Who is to say which won

The white master calls out laughing,

‘Look at the negro’s daring,

If you win your fight, you’ll rule the skies

You will keep the world from turning’

And the hammer struck down like thunder

It awed the speed of light

That fiery machine, man’s own steam drill

Was humbled before man’s might

Came the day the earth stood still

The hammer was finally sore

The whole wide world was one in mourning

John Henry was no more

John Henry had a baby daughter

Her heart was a stream of tears

She clung close to her ma’s lap waiting

For her father who was no more here

The morning sweet with birds’ singing,

Red glowed the eastern sky,

John Henry’s hammer sings in the air

As the steam engine whistles by

Hail to the Workers of the World,

The wide sky witnesses on May Day,

Beneath the song of the people you can hear

John Henry’s hammer at play