A John Henry Duet
John Henry (1965)
Retold and Illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats
“Hammers like this, Lawd, there’s never been!
I’ll keep swingin’ ’em, Lawd, until we win!”
John Henry is as American a story as they come, and Ezra Jack Keats imbibes it here with the mythic proportion it’s due. The first page presents a silhouette of the small house of his birth against a magnificently swirling night sky. “A hush settled over the hills,” he writes. “The river stopped murmuring, the wind stopped whispering, and the frogs and the owls fell silent.”
Next we see the young babe holding aloft his hammer and giggling. And John Henry was born, born with a hammer in his hand!
Keats doesn’t bring us directly to the climax. He instead takes his time, builds the legend, follows John Henry through his time working on the paddle boats, blasting out mountainsides, building the railroads Westward, rescuing fellow miners using only his wits, his strength… and his hammer!
Finally, enter the steam drill, a large, black metallic beast, smoking and churning.
“It can drill more holes faster than any six men combined! Who can beat that?”
John Henry stepped forward. “Try me!”
The remainder of the narrative is breathless and written with urgency in a way that I didn’t think Keats was capable of. After all, I mostly think of him as the author/illustrator of the Peter books, such as Goggles! and The Snowy Day. As John Henry swings his mighty hammer over and over, however, we very quickly become clued in that this is a battle of life or death.
Great chunks of rock fell as John Henry ripped hole after hole into the tunnel wall. The machine rattled and whistled and drilled even faster. Friends doused John Henry and L’il Bill with cold water to keep them going.
In rapid succession we see the enraged form of John Henry, holding aloft two hammers at once, screaming out, contrasted with the looks of wonder and admiration on the faces of his fellow workers, and finally, we’re left with the hunched form of his receding body as the book ends:
Still holding one of his hammers, John Henry stepped out into the glowing light of a dying day. It was the last step he ever took. John Henry died with his hammer in his hand.
John Henry (1994)
Retold by Julius Lester
Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
Pencil, colored pencils and watercolor
Typography by Jane Byers Bierhorst
A gorgeous book by Pinkney and written by the great Julius Lester, who took great pains to find a new way of telling this story. He writes in his introduction that he found a great resonance with the character of John Henry and Martin Luther King, Jr. He’s uncertain as to what the connection is, precisely, but doing this book helped him explore the issue.
Lester went through several old stories and songs and lifted ideas and stanzas to fill in the details of John Henry’s life. We begin with a birth sequence reminiscent of another famous birth in a stable in Bethlehem. In fact, the very first image is that of a shooting star.
Pinkney is an obvious lover of animals, and he fills the opening sequence with moose, bears, birds, mountain critters and forest dwellers of all size and shape and variety – even a unicorn I just now noticed – who have come to the home of the Henry family as they welcome into the world their uncommonly strong baby boy who is seen lifting his cradle above his head.
You have probably never heard of John Henry. Or maybe you heard about him but don’t know the ins and out of his comings and goings. Well, that’s why I’m going to tell you about him.
John Henry grows into an adolescent almost instantaneously, and is seen the very next day out chopping trees and piling up lumber. He “helped his papa rebuild the porch he had busted through, added a wing onto the house with an indoor swimming pool and one of them jacutzis (sic). After lunch he chopped down an acre of trees and split them into fireplace logs and still had time for a nap before supper.”
The next day after that, John challenges Ferret-Faced Freddy to a race: Freddy on horseback, John on foot. I’m sure you can guess who the winner is.
It’s as though John doesn’t know what to do with his strength, and becomes a trickster of a kind. It’s not until he meets the road crew that he finds his calling. With his two twenty-pound sledgehammers with four-foot handles made of whale bone, he breaks through a boulder which remained untouched after a dynamite explosion. As he swings his mighty hammers, he sings out:
I got a rainbow
Tied round my shoulder
It ain’t gon’ rain,
No, it ain’t gon’ rain.
There seem to be a thousand variations to the John Henry legend, in terms of these early adventures. However, the climax is always the same. The steam drill.
“It can hammer faster and harder than ten men and it never has to stop and rest!”
“Let’s have a contest. Your steam drill against me and my hammers.”
Pinkney shows John towering over the boss man, his hammer slung across his shoulders. All the other workers look on in intense curiosity and admiration. What wonderful detail Pinkney has paid to their clothing! It really comes across here. The boss man’s derby and checkered pants. John’s red kerchief and black vest. He clearly spent a great deal of time considering their attire, and everything about it comes across as absolutely authentic.
The next day, the contest begins. The narrative relies more on the illustrations here than the text. All day and all night, the steam drill and John Henry attempt to finish first. Finally, the contest is over. “The boss of the steam drill was flabbergasted. John Henry had come a mile and a quarter. The steam drill had only come a quarter.”
The victory is short-lived, however, as anyone who has ever heard the song will know. John Henry had hammered so hard and so fast and so long that his big heart had burst.
The last image of the book is of the White House, and Lester informs us that, “Some say he was buried on the White House lawn late one night while the President and the Mrs. President was asleep.”
Above it sails a shooting star.