This is the tale of two men, two black men, two tough sons of bitches immortalized in American song. Two ballads and identities that tell us all we need to know about sex, and race, and danger in America's first 200 years.
John Henry was a working man, 6 foot 2, 200 pounds, a giant in his day, born a slave some time in the 1840s. He punched holes into mountains so the mountains could be dynamited for railroad tunnels and died after competing with a steel driving steam drill.
Stagger Lee was a pimp who owned the Modern Horseshoe Club in the notorious Deep Morgan section of St. Louis in 1895. He lived in two story house on North 12th with half a dozen crib apartments in back where the girls worked.
These men, and the ballads that grew up around them, launched the careers of two of America's greatest public identities. It's no surprise then that the ballads of John Henry and Stagger Lee have remained core parts of the American repertoire for more than a century.