The Legend of John Henry
The legend of John Henry is an African American tale of power, strength, and perseverance that has been passed down from generation to generation for over a hundred years. The legend of this man has taken on a life of its own and evolved from a simple folk song into a powerful symbol for an oppressed people. It has been told thousands of times in a variety of ways. Originally, the heroics of John Henry were shared in oral traditions, in the format of a song or story and were not transcribed until the 20th century. This makes it difficult to determine the origins and validity of the legend, but at the same time, enables the raconteurs of this myth to alter it according to the various needs of their audience. Recent interpretations include Disney’s short film John Henry and Julius Lester’s children’s book John Henry. Disney’s film pictures John Henry as a historical civil rights hero, a symbol of African American empowerment, while Lester’s book illustrates Henry as a Christ-like figure, attaching a more mystical connotation of the hero. The different interpretations of John Henry as a mythical hero in black folklore reveal how he has become the embodiment of black freedom, dreams, and strength. As these adaptations show, his name holds a symbolic power that allows audiences to appropriate his heroics according to their wish. This tale is presented differently in most of children literature versions. Walt Disney’s ‘John Henry’ film and Lester’s ‘John Henry’ book are examined., with a goal of determining if it is necessary for people to deviate from the original story when talking about this myth.
In 2000, Walt Disney Studios created a film adaptation of the John Henry myth in which they transformed him into a selfless hero. This film was intended to introduce children to the “the doers and dreamers that made America great,” a knowledge Disney claims “no childhood should be without” (Website). A common feature of Disney adaptations of various fairytales, legends, and myths is the didactic messages that have been incorporated into them. In The Legend of John Henry, John uses his strength to benefit the people rather than have it displayed merely to demonstrate his own power. In this way, Disney tries to educate children on qualities they should develop within themselves. Placing John Henry before them as a role model, Walt Disney Studios attaches to him Western values, those that adults wish to instill in children of America.
At the same time, the film can also be seen as Disney’s attempt to create a hero that children of African American descent can identify with and be proud of. John Henry is the first animated African American protagonist created by Disney (Web). The theme of the film is evident from the opening; it begins with the narrator, an African American woman, saying, “Let me tell you about my John Henry, who laid down his life for his dream” (film). The film goes on to portray Henry as an emancipated slave that swears never again to be in chains. At one point Henry tells his wife, “Polly, if they steal our dreams they put a chain around our souls, somebody’s got to stand tall, believe me” (film). The idea of Henry being a slave is not found in original variations of the legend, which focus more on his mythical upbringing and displays of strength. In this way Disney attempts to historicize Henry; as a slave contextualized within a specific time period he appears more real. This realism helps to verify the message of the story; the more believable the underdog legend appears the more powerful its message is to audiences.
At the same time however, Disney also presents the idea that a hero’s reputation extends beyond the limits of his or her own reality. It is mentioned in the film that after John Henry joined the railroad gang, the rumors about his strength and achievements started growing. This referral separates the man from the myth while simultaneously maintaining the integrity and magic of the original tales. Henry’s character is so incredible he achieves powers that no ordinary man could possess. This extraordinary power is recognized by characters in the film who state: “John Henry was a mighty man born with a hammer, a ten pound hammer, a twenty pound hammer in his hand” (film). The fact that the speaker corrects himself when stating how heavy the hammer was emphasizes the incredible strength that people perceived him to possess. This is also another example of how rumors, like myths, get their power, from people who adjust the story with every telling of it. Another example of Henry’s increasing reputation occurs when a character sings, “I heard John’s momma liked to sew at night so he pulled down the moon for a little bit of light” (film). The idea that Henry could control the moon suggests that his strength masters the universe as well as the earth. In this way, Disney also models how legends and myths are created through speculation and elaboration of real people and events. They are revealing the process of myth making, while at the same time presenting children with a story and history they can relate to.
Like Disney’s adaptation, Julius Lester’s storybook, John Henry, presents the figure of John Henry as a mystical hero with unexplainable strength, someone who can inspire the everyday man. Lester writes that, “John Henry continues to move us by his affirmation of something triumphant which we hope is in all of us” (Lester). However, while Disney roots Henry within a historical setting, Lester’s telling elevates him to a god-like status, which shatters any notion that he was a real person. In this sense, Lester’s book presents Henry more as an idea of what people should aspire to be. The vision for his story developed from a conversation with the illustrator, Jerry Pinkney, who believed that there was a “transcendent quality of John Henry’s humanity” (Lester). The word “transcendent” endows Henry with many qualities; as a being it not only implies that he is superior in quality or achievement, it also suggests that he exists outside the material universe, above or outside all known categories (Oxford). In this sense Lester adds to the hero-worship on which the legend and variations of John Henry are predicated.
Lester expresses this transcendent aspect of John Henry’s character by comparing him to Christ. This comparison can be seen in the similarities that exist between Lester’s story and the biblical narrative. Henry’s birth for example, is comparable with the birth of Christ. He is born in a cabin in the forest, surrounded by animals. The humble origin of Henry’s birth is reminiscent of Christ’s birth in the stable, and contrasts the glory he would later achieve. Like the Christmas narrative, Lester also incorporates elements of the supernatural into his account of Henry’s birth. He writes:
When John Henry was born, birds came from everywhere to see him.
The bears and panthers and moose and deer and rabbits and squirrels
and even a unicorn came out of the woods to see him (p. 492).
Here it is implied that all of nature came to take part to worship or acknowledge Henry’s birth. The insinuated reverie of the forest creatures presents the belief that Henry is godlike in nature. Lester elevates the divine status of John Henry further by stating that even the sun was affected by his birth and not able to function properly. Here he writes that on the day of his birth, “instead of the sun tending to his business and going to bed, it was peeping out from behind the moon’s skirts trying to get a glimpse of the baby” (Lester). Throughout history, various cultures have the considered the sun to be one of the most powerful of deities and worshiped it as such (Web). So for Lester to claim that the sun stopped its work because of this man elevates him to a level that has, until now, only been assigned to God. In fact Julius takes this notion even farther when he expresses that as a baby, Henry scares the sun with his loud laugh that it ran and hid demonstrating that even as a baby John Henry was considered to have supremacy over the universe (Lester, 493). His authority is further asserted through his ability to order the sun to rise, a power that only belongs to God. It says, “The next morning John Henry was up at sunrise. The sun wasn’t. He was tired and decided to sleep in. John Henry wasn’t going to have none of that. He hollered up into the sky, “Get up from there! I got things to do and I need light to do’em by” (Lester, 493).
While this demonstrates Henry’s power over the natural world, it also shows Henry’s dedication to completing his work; he was not going to let anything keep him from doing what he needed to do. This portrayal of Henry differs from Disney’s depiction of him, which emphasizes his humanity. Lester’s book illustrates Henry as a Christ-like figure, attaching a more mystical connotation of the hero. The different interpretations of John Henry as a mythical hero in black folklore reveal how he has become the embodiment of black freedom, dreams, and strength. As these adaptations show, his name holds a symbolic power that allows audiences to appropriate his heroics according to their wish.
Lester, in his book John Henry, has used different versions of the original song, in addition to his own recollection of the story. His story starts with the birth of the legend to his death and burial at the white house lawn. Unlike the original version, Lester uses figurative language in this story, and this makes this version a perfect read aloud in addition to its storytelling format. Lester makes great use of imagery, including similes and metaphors in his work. For example, “a voice like bat wings on tombstones,”a boulder “as hard as anger,” “a mountain as big as hurt feelings,” and “muscles as hard as wisdom” (Lester).
Different literary devices are also used by Lester to make the story flow and capture the readers’ attention. His description of John Henry is great. He makes the description, which gives the reader a mental picture of what John Henry looked like. He gives every little physical detail of John Henry to bring out his Africa American nature. He describes him as having pronounced cheekbones, prominent arm muscles, and enormously large. Such illustrations enhance the storytelling flow and text amplification.
Lester also employs nature imagery; an example is the reappearance of the animal witnesses during his birth and during the passing of John Henry’s funeral train. This also symbolises that John is black, and tied to earth and its creatures. There is use of anthropomorphism, humanizing animals or objects. For example, the animals intentionally come to view baby John Henry, the sun tends his business, goes to bed, gets scared, goes through a gamut of morning activities (yawning, brushing and flossing its teeth, washing its face), and the moon even wears a skirt (Lester). Anthropomorphism puts the story in a realm where anything is possible. This aspect, which lacks in the original version, enhances the tall-taleness of the story. This, in addition to the bold and powerful paintings makes the book unique. In Lester’s book, a “read-aloud gem” is manifest. For example, “John Henry sang and he hammered and the air danced and the rainbow shimmered and the earth shook and rolled from the blows of the hammer.” (Lester). This makes the book interesting to read.
Lester uses different examples missing in the original version to establish the theme of the book. For example, he compares John Henry to Martin Luther King Jr. the similarity between these two is that they are heroes who worked hard until their death. The pictures are interesting, and these are meant to interest children, who are the main target of the book.
In Disney Walt’s John Henry, the film is short and is animated. Since this film is a children literature, animation is a good way to make children attentive and keen to detail during the watching process. The length of the film is short and this makes the viewers enjoy the story without getting bored. The animation is interesting and is in the pencil test form. The drawings in the animation are bold and rough, unlike other film versions, which are highly stylised. This shows a classic element of the film. The background of the film embraces an interesting art form, which is quite classical. This mainly serves to show the interconnectedness of the film with the classic legend tale.
In the John Henry film, music is used to keep the film moving. The accompanying music is of gospel genre, is inspiring, and is moving. The music at the beginning of the film is interesting, encouraging, and fun. This is to capture the viewers’ attention. To a child’s perspective today, this film is resonate and moving. The aspect of narration in the film is used at the beginning of the film, where one character does the narration. The narration smoothly flows and brings out the theme of love in the film, as narration is by Polly, John Henry’s wife.
These two pieces of work have slightly deviated from the original version of the “Legend of John Henry” tale. These give a modern twist to the original piece of work. The classic legend of the African-American hero was produced back in the days, in a different generation, and time as today. Therefore, most of its elements do not relate to the modern world. This is why the subsequent artists should consider reproducing artistic works in the modern context without changing their original meaning. In both works, the authors have added their own creations and modified the original work, but were careful enough not to alter the original meaning of the classic tale. The deviation from the original work is incorporated in these works in the form of thematic modifications, language use, stylistic devices used, and the elements of graphical presentation of the tale. This did not change the original theme of the tale, since in these two works, John Henry remains the hero in the tale. In addition, retelling this tale in the context of time and audience is essential as it enhances understanding of the tale’s theme by the audience, and makes the tale more interesting. This way, value is added to a piece of art when many people can identify with it. This therefore becomes easy for children to enjoy, and parents to appreciate.
John Henry, Dir. Henn, Mark, Steven Keller, 2000. DVD.
Lester, Julius. “John Henry.” New York: Paw Prints, 2009.
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