John Henry's Hammer
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"Some say he's born in Texas
Some say he's born up in Maine
I say John Henry was a Louisiana man
And Leader of a steel-driving gang, Lord
Leader on a steel-driving gang…

Well, the Captain said to John Henry
"I'm gonna bring my steam drill around
Gonna bring my steam drill out on the job
Gonna whup that steel on down, down, down
Whup that steel on down"

John Henry said to the Captain
(What he say?)
"You can bring your steam drill around
You can bring your steam drill out on the job
I'll beat your steam drill down, down, down
Beat your steam drill down"

(from) John Henry, trad. vers. W. Guthrie

Basic Information

John Henry - whatever his origins - is a now legendary railroad laborer and a folk hero to the American labour movement. According to the legend he was a steel driver - a skilled man who worked with a heavy sledge hammer ("swingin thirty pounds from my hips on down" as one version puts it) to drive railroad spikes and, in the heart of the legend, supply the propelling force for a hand driven stone drill. His lasting fame came when, faced with being replaced on a tunnelling project by a steam powered drilling machine, he demonstrated his ability to work faster than the machine. The story tells, however, that this effort cost him his life, and that he was unable to rise from his bed the next morning and died soon thereafter, but his wife (usually called Polly-Ann) was able to take up his hammer and drive steel in his place until the job was over.

Thus the man becomes a legend and his hammer a public domain artifact. Presumably the tool itself started out as a pretty unremarkable railway hammer, but its place in such an epic narrative, and the life that was sacrificed to its purpose will have converted it into something more. As a tool, it may retain the ability to complete extraordinary deeds of manual labour, albiet at a dreadful cost to the user (perhaps allowing them to ignore fatigue, even up to fatal levels, until a given job is complete and likely granting a skill bonus), as a symbol it may work to rally labourers, both for work and as a collective force against abusive employers and, perhaps, as a weapon it might serve best against those who oppress the working man. Where it is now is anyone's guess - maybe in the hands of a labourer somewhere in the American South whether driving steel or breaking stones, maybe propping up a wall in a railroad section house somewhere. Most potently, it might be in the hands of a chain-gang prisoner somewhere - and, if he is abused and/or wrongly convicted it may yet make its name as a weapon.

Sources

Bibliography
1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • A fantasy version of this hammer might well be of great import in a slave revolt - bonus points if it has been repeatedly fed by the deaths of wielder after wielder worked to death in its service.
  • Instead of a symbol of liberty it might turn out to be a tool of opression - an artifact of evil that drives its user to work himself to death, exchanging a labourer's life for an unusually high (but very short-term) productivity. Soon the hammer becomes recognised as a death sentence, each man who takes it up knowing that his time has come and it is his turn to feed the wheels.
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