Like other "Big Men" such as Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, and Iron John, John Henry served as a mythical representation of
a particular group within the melting pot of the 19th-century working class. In the most popular story of his life, Henry is born into the world big and strong. He grows to be
one of the greatest "steel-drivers" in the mid-century push to extend the railroads across the mountains to the West. The complication of the story is that, as
machine power continued to supplant brute muscle power (both animal and human), the owner of the railroad buys a steam-powered hammer to do the work of his mostly black
driving crew. In a bid to save his job and the jobs of his men, John Henry challenges the inventor to a contest: John Henry versus the steam hammer. John Henry wins, but in
the process, he suffers a heart attack and dies.
In modern depictions John Henry is usually portrayed as hammering down rail spikes, but older songs instead refer to
him driving blasting holes into rock, part of the process of excavating railroad tunnels and cuttings.