Saturday, September 8, 2012

John Henryism

Tonight, as part of last week’s Fathers Day gifts, my lads took me to the movies to see The Expendables 2.  That, however, is not the point of my comments. 

My oldest son, Thomas, was driving.  He had Hugh Laurie’s album Let Them Talk playing.  For those not familiar with Hugh Laurie, or for those who only know him as the actor who plays Dr House in the American TV hospital drama House, he is English, is a writer, actor and a talented muso.  Let Them Talk is a collection of blues classics and Laurie plays piano, guitar and sings lead vocals.  As an example, see and hear him sing and play Swanee River by clicking on the following link:

But that is also not the point of my post today.  One of the tracks playing was John Henry, or more correctly The Ballad of John Henry.  Hear/see Hugh Laurie’s version , with Irma Thomas, at:

That prompted me to tell Thomas that I had prepared a post some time ago about a syndrome known as John Henryism, but that I hadn’t gotten around to actually posting it on Bytes.  This, in turn, led to us discussing John Henry, so I said that I would post the item as the next Bytes item.

Here it is . . .


In looking up something, I don’t remember what I was looking up, I became sidetracked by another item.  That’s one of the problems of the information super highway, becoming distracted by other items of interest, of travelling side roads off the super highway that take you to more and more side roads, diversion upon diversion that impact on time and productivity.

Which seems appropriate to the item which detoured me tonight.

Ever heard of John Henryism? I hadn’t, until I came across the term by accident.

Who is John Henry?

John Henry is an American folk hero, the subject of a song written by Woody Guthrie.  In the song John Henry, a steel driving man working for the railroad, is to be replaced by a steam powered machine that will in future drive the steel spikes securing the rails.  To save his job and those of his fellow workers, John Henry competes against the machine, beating the machine but dying in the process.

Hear the Johnny Cash version at:

Part of the lyrics:

The captain said to John Henry
"Gonna bring that steam drill 'round.
Gonna bring that steam drill out on the job.
Gonna whop that steel on down. Down, Down.
Whop that steel on down."

John Henry told his captain,
"A man ain't nothin' but a man,
But before I let your steam drill beat me down,
I'd die with a hammer in my hand. Lord, Lord.
I'd dies with a hammer in my hand."

John Henry said to his shaker,
"Shaker, why don't you sing?
I'm throwin' thirty pounds from my hips on down.
Just listen to that cold steel ring. Lord, Lord.
Listen to that cold steel ring."

The man that invented the stream drill
Thought he was mighty fine,
But John Henry made fifteen feet;
The steam drill only made nine. Lord, Lord.
The steam drill only made nine.

John Henry hammered in the mountain
His hammer was striking fire.
But he worked so hard, he broke his poor heart.
He laid down his hammer and he died. Lord, Lord.
He laid down his hammer and he died.

Some more stuff about John Henry:

The legend of John Henry embodies a number of symbolic meanings:  the strength of the working class man, the struggle of man v machine, the exploitation of African Americans and the heroic individual who refuses to give up.

According to one writer:

“John Henry is a symbol of physical strength and endurance, of exploited labor, of the dignity of a human being against the degradations of the machine age, and of racial pride and solidarity. During World War II his image was used in U.S. government propaganda as a symbol of social tolerance and diversity.”

It has been claimed that the John Henry competition against the steam hammer took place during the construction of Big Bend tunnel near Talcott, West Virginia between 1869 and 1871.   Talcott holds a yearly festival named for Henry and a statue and memorial plaque have been placed along a highway south of Talcott as it crosses over the Big Bend tunnel:

The John Henry Memorial atop Big Bend Mountain at Talcott, West Virginia

So what is John Henrysim?

The term John Henryism, aka The John Henry Hypothesis, was coined by Sherman James in 1983.

According to one definition, it is a strategy for coping with prolonged exposure to stresses such as social discrimination by expending high levels of effort.  This then results in accumulating physiological costs.   

A simpler explanation is that it is what happens when you respond to social stresses by working extra hard. If, despite your hard work, those same stresses keep you from succeeding, then the effect can feed back into itself, pushing you to work even harder.   It then sets up a negative cycle.

Let’s make it even simpler.  Each of us have stresses and difficulties in our lives some more than others.  Most of us also believe that we have it within ourselves to overcome the stresses and difficulties by hard work and determination.

The problem is that not everyone has the means or resources to carry out that determination.  This can then make the person want to try even harder.

Some studies have found that African Americans with a strong desire to improve and overcome difficulties often found themselves frustrated by lower education levels.  It was theorised that this then caused medical ailments such as high blood pressure and hypertension.  Not all studies have backed this up and the John Henry Hypothesis has its critics as well as its supporters.

Sherman James developed a scale for measuring John Henryism based on rating agreement with a series of statements such as "When things don't go the way I want them to, that just makes me work even harder." Men who score higher on this scale generally have higher blood pressure than men with lower scores. This effect is strongest in those who are poorest.


"One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important."

-- Bertrand Russell

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