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A hero of American folktales and folk songs. The stories portray him as a black man, enormously strong, who worked on railroads or on steamboats and died from exhaustion after he outperformed a steam drill in a contest.
hero of a widely sung U.S. black folk ballad. It describes his contest with a steam drill, in which John Henry crushed more rock than did the machine but died "with his hammer in his hand." Writers and artists see in John Henry a symbol of man's foredoomed struggle against the machine and of the black man's tragic battle with the white man.