Folk historian Dan Whitener, who recorded the song in 2015 with his band Gangstagrass, explained in a Songfacts interview
: "In the early versions, John Henry is black. He's a worker, and he may not necessarily have agency over whether or not he competes in this race. The history of labor in this country, you go back to miners and railyard workers, and the amazingly deep history of injustice, it's embedded in a lot of our folk music, but you hear different versions of the song and you might not necessarily get all those details.
You think about who John Henry was, and the struggles he had to contend with and the symbolism. What does it mean that this guy is racing against the steam drill? What does it mean that he wins and he dies? What does it mean for his life?
On face value, it's a cool thing, like, man, that guy's so strong
, and you can read sort of an allegory about the Industrial Revolution:This thing is coming to automate all our jobs away. But don't worry, this guy will take care of it, he'll work until he dies!
Wait a minute, what? What's the good thing about that?