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Beyond The Ballad: St. Louisan’s Film Deepens Understanding Of Folk Hero John Henry

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Matthew Rice
Illustration for "The Ballad of John Henry" documentary, directed by filmmaker Matthew Rice.

“The Ballad of John Henry” is among the most recognizable musical pieces highlighting the life of John Henry — there are more than 200 versions of the classic folk song. The former slave became one of America’s greatest tall-tale heroes, but his life was one of debate among historians.

That was until author Scott Reynolds Nelson pieced together parts of Henry’s life in “Steel Drivin’ Man.” It was a book St. Louis filmmaker Matthew Rice came across years ago, and it inspired his new film “The Ballad of John Henry.”

“There are many versions, or many theories, on who the real John Henry could be. The one that Scott Nelson uncovered, [which] I believe to be kind of the best research and has the most evidence, that's why I focused on it,” Rice said on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air.

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Library of Congress
Convict leasing was a system of forced penal labor historically practiced that targeted Black men after the Civil War.

His documentary delves into the folk hero’s hardships of living under Virginia’s “Black codes” and the convict-lease program, an unjust legal system developed after the Civil War as a replacement for slavery.

“His full name is John William Henry, as prison census records show. He was a convict at the Virginia State Penitentiary, and he was arrested right after the Civil War, under a series of very unjust laws that are colloquially called the ‘Black codes,’” Rice explained.

Henry was forced to work as a steel driver on the mile-long Lewis Tunnel for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway through a convict leasing labor system, which basically put prisoners back into slave labor.

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Library of Congress
Black prisoners forced to work on the railroads relied on work songs to get through tough labor conditions.

It was incredibly dangerous work. Rice said some of the most apparent injuries were due to hammers slipping and hitting hands and heads.

“But really, the thing that records show that could have potentially been the worst is called silicosis, [a lung disease],” he added. “Men in these tunnels would be inhaling lots of rock dust into their lungs, and it would ultimately tear up their lung tissue and make it very hard for them to breathe … there are records that show that as more convicts were sent out to work, many more came back dead.”

The origin of the popular work song synonymous with John Henry carries the sinister tone of the tough conditions the workers dealt with.

“It was originally a warning to all workers that if you work too hard, you might end up like John Henry and die. So it had a very dark connotation in the beginning. And I kind of focus on it in the film. But I think it's just so fascinating how we kind of flipped it and made it more of a positive story,” Rice said.

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St. Louis filmmaker and director Matthew Rice appeared on Friday's "St. Louis on the Air" to talk about "The Ballad of John Henry."

“So yes, the original story is very tragic. But I think it was so important to dive into it a little bit further because I think it uncovers so many things that occurred in American history during that time that we'd like to try and cover up a little bit.”

Rice joined host Sarah Fenske to further discuss how he approached the film, which is streaming for free as part of this year’s extended St. Louis International Film Festival.

Related Event

What: “The Ballad of John Henry
When: Now through Nov. 22
Where: For free online

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Lara is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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