Adaptations of Minority Legends:
A Look at a Retelling of "John Henry"
By Tracy L. Roberts
As a person who grew up in Appalachia, I am aware of the stereotypes and misconceptions that are often inherent in telling a legend from a specific region. The fact that these legends are twofold allows room to examine the interpretation that is applied by the author and, in the case of picture books, by the illustrator as well. Often legends are not specific to either a culture or a region, and in the telling the legend is often generalized to meet a universal and more generic need. This happens as retellings of legends lose their specific cultural identity.
In the legend of John Henry this is not the case. John Henry is not only attached historically to a specific region, but he is also attached to a specific ethnic group. John Henry is specific to a region in West Virginia that is today known as Summers County. This rugged, mountainous region is still very similar to the way the area was at the time of John Henrys existence. The area is steeped in coal mining and highly dependent on the railroad for its economy. The people are typically rural and hardworking, dependent on the rugged terrain for their living. At the turn of the twentieth century, the oncoming industrial age and the leftover effects of the Civil War, as well as emancipation, were being felt. In a free state, the area was flooded with freed African Americans, as well as other transient workers willing to put the rail lines through. With the introduction of the steam engine, there existed a threat to this lifestyle that was dependent on hand laborers.
John Henry as a legend was an icon for these people who believed hard work and perseverance were a way of life. John Henry played a twofold role in that not only was he a menial laborer, he was also a black man. West Virginia refused to side with the Southern states in the Civil War, as its economy was not dependent on slave labor. This allowed the state and its inhabitants to be independent from the mentality of the Confederacy. But without the highly lucrative industry found in the North, West Virginia inherently was isolated from the Union as well. This created a unique individual. Inhabitants of West Virginia tended to be very independent and willing to work hard for their existence. Because of this unique quality, when John Henry's contest with the steam engine took place, it happened within the perfect culture to admire the individual. This admiration should be honored in the retelling of the legend.
My annotated bibliography focuses on these elements and examines the symbolism and historical accuracy of Lesters version.
Carson, Clayborne, ed. The
Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Warner
W. John Henry: A
Folk-Lore Study. New York: Biedermann, 1933.
Courlander, Harold. A
Treasury of Afro-American Folklore. New York: Marlowe
and Company, 1996.
Green, Archie. A
Folklorists Creed and Folksingers Gift. Appalachian Journal, Vol. 7 (Autumn-Winter1980): pp.
37 - 44.
Hamilton, Virginia. The
Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl. New
Lester, Julius. E
- mail. firstname.lastname@example.org
|Lester, Julius. John
Henry. The Horn Book
Magazine Jan.-Feb.1996: pp.
28-31. This is an article written by Julius Lester with his views of his
John Henry book. He discusses his responsibility to be true to history in portrayals
for children. This article
gives more information about this than my e-mail correspondence.
It is excellent as it utilizes Lesters background as a professor
Lester, Julius. Writing History. Riverbank Review (Fall 1998): pp. 6-8. In this article Lester explores the need in our culture for a hero. It is very interesting because it helps explain why we become attached to legends and, therefore, should retell these stories to our children. Lester says in this article that we have a definite responsibility to impart history and legends, folklore, and also music and oral traditions to our children. The article is excellent and offers a healthy opinion on why we should hold on to, and learn from, our past.
Living Blues. Life April. 1999: p. 92. This Life magazine article is by no means academic, but it does refer to the blues style of music and how black culture and black legends influenced it. This article helps to understand the singer Leadbelly, whom Lester refers to in his correspondences. It is a good article but only gives a small amount of background on the music side of the legend.
Lomax, Alan. Folk Songs of North America. New York: Doubleday, 1960. Lomax had a strong desire to record early rural music in America, and this book is the result of his years of collecting these recordings. The book precedes each song with a short history of its origins and cultural connections. Lester also used this book and gives Lomax a lot of credit for helping to preserve the history of music and legend. The book has different sections, and Legends is one. It is out of print, but it is worth the effort to find it.
Nelson, Scott. National Public Radio Interview. E - mail. TWAHL@ npr.org. Telephone Interview. 14 Mar. 1999. This is a radio talk show aired on NPR that discussed the fact that John Henry was a real person. The show refers to Lester and how the historical society in Summers County, West Virginia, has researched Henry. It is very interesting and can be ordered through NPR.org. Scott Nelson has researched John Henry and is interviewed in the broadcast. It is appropriate for children and adds a new medium to this topic of research.
Osborne, Mary Pope. American Tall Tales. Illus. Michael McCurdy. New York: Knopf, 1991. This is a compilation of stories that are tales based on fantastic elements in America. A retelling of "John Henry" is in this book, as well as an excellent bibliography and a short historical background. This book is illustrated with tinted wood engravings and is a must for a personal library due to its diversity. It also is a good retelling that helps to shed light on Lesters version.
Pinkney, Jerry. John Henry. The Horn Book Magazine Jan-Feb. 1996: pp. 32-34. In this article Jerry Pinkney discusses his approaches to his illustrations of John Henry in the book he collaborated on with Julius Lester. As a matter of interest, he actually worked on the illustrations prior to the text being illustrated. This is very unusual in publication. Since Pinkney wrote the article, it gives a new angle on the background of the book, different from that of Julius Lester. This is an excellent article.
Theory and History of Folklore. Vol. 5. Minneapolis: U.
of Minnesota Press,1984.
Resources and Versions of "John Henry"
See John Henry in AppLit's Annotated Index of Folktales by Title for many more references.
John Henry and the Inky-Poo. Analysis of George Pal's 1946 Puppetoon (animated puppet film) about John Henry, with audio and video, in Tim Fitzpatrick's web site on animation.
John Henry - the Steel Drivin' Man. Summers County, WV's web site with background essay and images associated with the railway and John Henry statue in Talcott, WV.
John Henry - the Steel Driving Man. A web site created by four graduate students at UNC-Chapel Hill. Includes various versions of John Henry songs, photos, a copy of the first known written manuscript of the legend, music, and a detailed list of Resources about John Henry.
Nikola-Lisa, W. "John Henry: Then and Now." African American Review, Spr. 1998.
Teacher Resource File on Julius Lester at James Madison U., including links to resources on John Henry.