"The Ballad of John Henry” is a traditional song, also called a popular ballad. Originally, the popular ballad was passed down by word of mouth, not written down, so it has been subject to changes in lyrics and tune. Even once a ballad is written down, individual performers remain free to interpret and change it as they see fit. Before you start your analysis, decide whether you are going to compare different versions of the “John Henry” ballad or concentrate on just one, such as one of the earliest written copies of the ballad from around 1900: “John Henry, Steel Driving Man.”
A popular ballad has several characteristics that appear in “John Henry.” A ballad should be dramatic -- the lyrics rely on action and dialogue to tell the story; it should be condensed; it starts with the climatic action; and it should be impersonal -- the speaker does not refer to himself. In the 1900 version of “John Henry,” the reader is immediately introduced to the man, and by the end of stanza 2, you already know the intentions of the main character as well as what the story will be about: “’Before that steam drill shall beat me down,/I’ll die with my hammer in my hand’.” These two lines also introduce the dialogue that will become a prominent feature of the story. Typically, a ballad is impersonal; however, the interesting thing about “John Henry” is that the speaker -- or singer -- does pass judgment: “He hammered his fool self to death.” Whether this judgment really represents what the speaker is feeling will be up to you to decide.
For the most part, “John Henry” employs a ballad stanza: a quatrain consisting of alternating four and three stressed lines and rhymes on the second and fourth lines. You can see the use of this structure in stanza 6, during which a bet is established between John Henry and his captain: “John Henry’s captain came to him/With fifty dollars in his hand,/He laid his hand on his shoulder and said:/‘This belongs to a steel driving man.’” As is characteristic of a ballad stanza, the second and third lines share a rhyme: “hand” and “man.” This emphasis on the relationship between these two words might bring up ideas of touch and its relation to the creation of man, such as is seen in Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam.”
There are numerous questions in “John Henry,” but the main ones seem to be connected: What makes a man? Does man eventually win over the machine? Can a man conquer someone or something through his death? How you answer these questions will help you isolate what major theme -- or argument -- the ballad is making. There are also various religious themes running through the ballad, introduced by the mention of the “Shakers” in stanza 3: “John Henry said to the Shakers:/‘You must listen to my call.'” The Shakers were a religious group -- otherwise known as the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing -- who came from England to America in 1774. It may be that the ballad is trying to present “John Henry” as a Christ figure, who sacrifices himself for the greater good. Through his faith -- that, admittedly, might be better characterized as faith in himself or humanity -- John Henry is literally able to “move mountains,” as we see in stanzas 4 and 5.
The appearance of John’s “woman,” Pollie Ann, at the end of the ballad functions to move the narrative -- or story -- along after his death. When Pollie Ann hears that John Henry is dead, she cannot sleep and, at midnight, catches the train that will take her to the portion of the tracks where John Henry “fell dead.” Pollie Ann’s journey to the site of John Henry’s death might imply a pilgrimage to sacred ground. For instance, when she arrives at the place where he died, the speaker mentions, she is “all dressed in blue.” The figure of a woman wearing blue at the site of someone’s death may be an allusion to the Virgin Mary at the crucifixion site of her son Jesus where Mary is typically depicted wearing a dark blue robe. The last line of the ballad is a cryptic piece of dialogue spoken by Pollie Ann to her dead steel-driving man, “’John Henry I’ve been true to you.'” In your analysis, you might find that this line raises questions: Why did he choose to participate in a contest that he knew would surely kill him? Is this an indication that Pollie Ann recognizes that John Henry has done his best to provide for her? Conversely, you might find that Pollie Ann’s comment implies that she actually has been untrue. In any case, your analysis should take these questions into account.