Paul Bunyan and John Henry

Week 14: American Folklore - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images


Paul Bunyan

Although Paul Bunyan is one of the best known figures in American "folklore," he is largely the creation of a commercial entity: the Red River Lumber Company, which began actively promoting Paul Bunyan as a corporate logo and symbol in the first decades of the 20th century. The first collections of Paul Bunyan legends in pamphlet form were published in 1914 and 1916, but the most successful collection by far was the 1922 booklet, The Marvelous Exploits of Paul Bunyan as Told in the Camps of the White Pine Lumbermen for Generations During Which Time the Loggers Have Pioneered the Way Through the North Woods From Maine to California Collected from Various Sources and Embellished for Publication. This booklet is the source for both the illustrations and the stories that you will be reading this week.

There may have been Paul Bunyan stories that circulated throughout the logging camps of the United States and Canada during the late 19th century, but the evidence for this is not entirely clear. Of course there were "tall tales" and legends about extraordinary exploits that happened in the logging camps - but there does not appear to be any trace of a character named Paul Bunyan. The Paul Bunyan stories that people have come to know as American legends were the stories that were created by writers for the Red River Lumber Company, and initially circulated in print on behalf of that company. Most people today probably think that Paul Bunyan is an old American folk hero, but the fact is that he started out as a marketing gimmick, like the Jolly Green Giant or Betty Crocker.

The Red River Lumber Company was founded by Thomas Barlow Walker, and the company's holdings were originally in the pine woods of Minnesota, with its main sawmill in Akeley, Minnesota in the Red River Valley. Over time, Red River Lumber had thinned the Minnesota woods so substantially that Red River began acquiring timberland in northeastern California in the late 1890's, ultimately acquiring over one million acres of timberland. In 1913, the company relocated to California, with its main sawmill now located in Westwood, California. If you read the California and Southwest Indian Legends, Westwood is located in the Mount Shasta region, the ancestral home of the Karuk and other Shasta peoples.

The expansion of Red River Lumber was closely connected with railway expansion throughout the West, and Red River was the first lumber company to begin replacing its steam engines with diesel engines. The Red River Lumber facility in Westwood was the largest pine lumber mill in the world from 1913 to 1956. Red River was eventually purchased by Fruit Growers Supply Company (Sunkist) in 1944; back when fruit was shipped in wooden crates, the Fruit Growers Supply Company was engaged in extensive lumber activities, although this largely stopped when cardboard replaced crates for the shipping of produce. Presumably, however, the Paul Bunyan trademark still belongs to Sunkist.

John Henry

The contrast between Paul Bunyan and John Henry could not be greater. John Henry, the "Steel-Drivin' Man," was a truly popular folk hero whose famous contest is attested in popular folksongs dating back to the late 19th century. It is generally acknowledged that "John Henry" is the best known and most recorded American folk song. As you will find out this week, it is actually many folksongs, attested in many different versions sung by very different sorts of singers.

It seems fairly certain that the John Henry legend derives from a historical incident, although scholars disagree about where the event might have taken place. Some argue that the contest between John Henry and the steam drill took place near Birmingham, Alabama during the building of the Coosa Tunnel for the C&W Railroad in 1887-8. Other scholars argue that John Henry worked on the C&O Railroad expansion into the Ohio Valley, and that the contest took place during the building of the Big Bend Tunnel in Summers County, West Virginia during the 1870's.

Although it is not clear exactly where and when the story might have taken place, the substance of the story is the same. John Henry was a "hammer-man" whose job was to drive a steel drill into the rock, building tunnels through mountains to allow the railroad to pass on through. The hammer-man was helped by a shaker (or turner), whose unenviable job was to bend down and twist the drill after each blow of the hammer. After the hole was deep enough, explosives would be placed inside and the rock would be blasted out. When the railroad company proposed using a steam-drill to replace the hammer-man, John Henry agreed to a day-long contest, man against machine. John Henry won the contest, but died as soon as it was over.

Many of the folksongs tell us that John Henry was married, and they emphasize his role as a husband or as a father. Other songs focus on the grief of John Henry's mother after his death. Still other songs tell us that there were many women who mourned John Henry's passing. Clearly, for many of these folksingers, John Henry was a symbol of both physical prowess and potency. Some of the folksongs also include the story of his birth, and his own prediction that the "Hammer's gonna be the death of me." Other songs protest the brutal working conditions or the poor pay that the railroad workers received. Geoff Edgers provides an excellent overview of the different meanings of John Henry's legend as expressed in the many different folksongs that tell the story:

A hero becomes what you need. So in the ballad, John Henry's makeup depends on who is telling his tale. Is he a strong, black man driving the railroad west? A husband and father? A sweaty, sexual dynamo swinging the hammer? A symbol of futility because he died on the job or an inspiration because he beat the white man's steam-drill?

Considering that John Henry did clearly exist - and that we know the color of his skin - it's surprising how rarely his race is mentioned. [...] It's likely that the black singers, whether prisoners or blues men, took his race as a given, seeing no need to mention it. He is their Paul Bunyan. In the case of Johnny Cash, race had nothing to do with the ballad. This was a union song, not a civil rights anthem. After all, John Henry, as ultimate working-class hero, has been embraced by disparate groups: black prisoners, white mountain musicians, college folk revivalists, elderly blues singers. Most Southern states have claimed him, as does Maine in Woody Guthrie's version, even though he was likely born in North Carolina or West Virginia.

The connector is this valiant battle, man against machine, man against boss, man against the power structure that keeps his people (African-Americans? laborers?) in chains. He's a hero to Woody Guthrie, a warning to Mississippi John Hurt, an inspiration to the chain gang. From verse-to-verse, generation-to-generation, the story changes to suit the singer. The name and steel-driving solitude stay the same.

The first printed version of "John Henry" appeared in the year 1900, based on folksongs that had been circulating in the late 1800's. The first recording of a John Henry song is in 1924, by "Fiddlin' John Carson", a white musician from Georgia who was born in 1868. The first recording by an African-American musician was made in 1927 by Ragtime Henry Thomas, a blues singer from Texas. Thanks to the iBiblio website and NPR, you will be able to listen to a variety of John Henry recordings this week, including versions by Leadbelly, Uncle Dave Macon, Bill Monroe, Missisippi John Hurt, Woody Guthrie, and Johnny Cash.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM