Adaptations of Minority Legends:
A Look at a Retelling of "John Henry"

 By Tracy L. Roberts
Purdue University


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 Henry’s 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. 

This legend has been retold many times.   Ezra Jack Keats' version in picture book format (1965) has been the most used retelling. Julius Lester has taken this legend and created a retelling honoring both the Appalachian and African American roots Lester universalizes his legend to some degree, but his version is the strongest to date. Pinkney’s illustrations are true to the region, and his human qualities portraying black culture and features are both sensitive and correct. Lester and Pinkney have tried to balance the cultural attachments as well as the universal appeal.

My annotated bibliography focuses on these elements and examines the symbolism and historical accuracy of Lester’s version.
Annotated Bibliography

Carson, Clayborne, ed. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Warner Brothers, 1998.
This book tells the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. with an excellent amount of historical fact and a solid bibliography.  There are copies of many of his speeches as well as historical interpretations of the impact of these speeches.  The book also has important photos that help the reader realize the impact that some of these images have on Jerry Pinkney’s illustrations.  In particular there is one photo of King taken from behind that shows him in silhouette.  This photo is recreated in the book when Pinkney illustrates Henry swinging his hammers.  The symbolism of freedom is evident in both men.  The book is for adults and would not work for children.  Copies of the photo would be beneficial to show children how illustrators are influenced by their reality.  Also, it would be excellent to discuss the appropriateness of using someone from a different region as a model for John Henry.  I believe any book showing photos of King would be beneficial, yet this book seems to delve more into the meaning and impact of King

Chappell, Louis W. John Henry:  A Folk-Lore Study. New York: Biedermann, 1933.
This historical view of the legend of John Henry gives background on the historical evolution of the story.  It has a bibliography that explains the musical connections (which are great), as well as an overview of the area of West Virginia and the time in which the C&O railroad was being constructed.  This book is essential, as it is the only book that examines the historical background and the musical connection.  Lester actually owns this book and used it for his reference.  To do critical analysis of the impetus of Lester’s work, it is a very good source.  The book is hard to obtain as it is out of print.

Courlander, Harold. A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore. New York: Marlowe and Company, 1996.
This book recognizes the many areas of Africa that produced various traditions of folklore and gives an explanation of the Jack and Anansi tales that were so prevalent to the culture.  It also gives history of the Harris tales with Brer or Bruh Rabbit, and the connection of these tales to slavery in America.  It gives insight into the African and African American history of lore and explains that a legend such as "John Henry" is very important in that it is uniquely from America.  This book also gives insight into the Legends of Pretty Pearl.  It is an excellent source and may be shared with children.

Green, Archie. “A Folklorist’s Creed and Folksinger’s Gift.” Appalachian Journal, Vol. 7 (Autumn-Winter1980): pp. 37 - 44. 
This article further connects the music and the legends.  It explains how oral tales can be transferred to the genre of music to help preserve the history and the oral tradition.  John Henry has strong connections to music, and this article helps explain some of the reasons why this happens.  It is published in an Appalachian magazine that is sensitive to stereotypes and references to the region.  It is not for children but is necessary reading to get a solid grasp on the total impact of the legend in Appalachia.  Lester stated that he also read this article and referred to it in his article on history (included in this bibliography).

Hamilton, Virginia. The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl. New York: HarperCollins,1983.
This beautifully written book refers to John Henry in the story of John de Conquer as well as Pretty Pearl.  It is fantasy within the setting of Appalachia, which is rare.  Because it is Appalachian and African American, it is an excellent secondary reading in reference to Lester’s work.  It also is a balance of African American folktale with a meshing of setting outside that of Africa.  It helps to show how the strength of story came with the people to a new country under extreme stress and actually survived.  This book is very good in that it is well researched and integral to the complete understanding of literature that deals with both African American culture and the region of Appalachia. See more at AppLit's Folklore in Books by Virginia Hamilton.

Lester, Julius. E - mail. Mar.1999.
This is an online discussion with Lester about portrayal of Appalachia in his story of John Henry.  I have a copy of this and will be happy to share it with anyone who would like to read it.  (To be added to AppLit at a later date.)  It gave me insight into Lester’s reasoning for the small amount of universal application that he used in this book.  Lester points out the importance of music and the connection with the blues singer Leadbelly.

Lester, Julius. John Henry.
Illus. Jerry Pinkney. 
New York: Dial, 1994.

This is the picture book adaptation of the legend of John Henry that I use.   It is the best retelling of the legend.  The illustrations are beautiful, and the text is equally well done.  It is perfect for all ages studying legends, folklore, African Americans, or Appalachia

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 Lester’s background as a professor and teacher.

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@  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  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 Lester’s 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.

Propp, Vladimir. Theory and History of Folklore. Vol. 5. Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota Press,1984.
In this book Propp discusses the theory behind using real people in history in legendary stories.  Propp discusses some of the psychological aspects of the need for people to have a hero in legends and further explores some of the points Lester has taken into account in his story and his subsequent articles.  This book helps to define the responsibility that is inherent in retelling stories.  This book is a tedious read but very good in its content.

Other Resources and Versions of "John Henry" 
(not evaluated by Tracy like the references above)

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.

Created:  2/02/2002
Last Update:  5/3/03 8:04 PM
Links checked 5/3/03
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