Songs Tales Novels and Drama Other Background

Overview: "John Henry" is one of the best-known American legends (based on real places, people, and events) and tall tales (with superhuman strength attributed to the hero) told in traditional ballads and hammer songs, also retold in prose adaptations. Some legends tell that an African American baby who wielded a hammer moved from Tennessee to West Virginia, where he helped build the Big Bend railway tunnel in Summers County in the late 19th century. He died after winning a contest with a steel-driving machine, a noble attempt to show that the coming of stronger machines would not displace human workers. (There is a monument to John Henry at Talcott, WV.) There are innumerable books and recordings with different versions of the story. John Henry is sometimes a white man, sometimes a worker on the docks instead of the railroads, sometimes almost a saint and sometimes a gambling, womanizing trickster, or both. In Appalachia since the 1920s, both white and black musicians have remembered "John Henry" as one of the first and most popular songs they learned.


Bontemps, Arna, ed. Golden Slippers: An Anthology of Negro Poetry for Young Readers. New York: Harper & Row, 1941. In Part IV. Hard Work, "John Henry" (pp. 34-37) asserts "That he's an East Virginia man." His "cute liddle wife" is Julie Ann and he tells his "liddle boy / ... that Big Ben Tunnel / Gonna be the death of me." John Henry is buried in the sand at the White House. Next in this book is "John Henry in Harlem" (pp. 38-40), a poem by M. B. Toleson about a man named Stillicho Spikes who does sweaty work among the tenements in Harlem and sings about John Henry and his wife Polly Ann. Spikes thinks of his son being the first to graduate from high school and "perhaps" becoming "a second Booker T."

Chappell, Louis. John Henry: A Folk-Lore Study. Jena, Germany:  Frommer, 1933. Rpt. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1968.  A scholarly study with many versions of the ballad and hammer song.

Cohn, Amy L., ed. From Sea to Shining Sea: A Treasury of American Folklore and Folk Songs. New York: Scholastic, 1993. This attractive collection contains a section of railroad folklore, "I've Been Working on the Railroad." The ballad "John Henry" has a musical score arranged by Elizabeth Poston and an illustration by Caldecott winner David Wiesner. (The preceding section, "Let My People Go," is illustrated by Jerry Pinkney.)

AUDIO IN APPLIT - "John Henry." Section in teaching unit West Virginia's Appalachian Music and Literature (1997) contains reproduction of a musical score and an audio version sung by folklorist Noel Tenney in traditional ballad style. (Formerly in West Virginia's World School web site, now reprinted in AppLit.)

"John Henry" text and "John Henry" painting. In Dan Dutton's Ballad Project. Dutton's comments discuss interesting links with Yoruba mythology and the symbolism of iron. Dutton is a multimedia artist in Pulaski County, KY.  His paintings illustrate some of the ballads in this site.

"John Henry." National Public Radio Series "Present at the Creation: Exploring Icons of American Culture." Morning Edition. Sept. 2, 2002. NPR's excellent web site contains a variety of recordings. See more below under Other Background.

Johnson, Guy. John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend. Chapel Hill: U. of NC Press, 1929. A scholarly study with many versions different from Chappell's.

"The Legend of John Henry." In Higgs, Robert J., Ambrose N. Manning, and Jim Wayne Miller, eds.  Appalachia Inside Out: A Sequel to Voices from the Hills. Vol. 1, chap. 2, Heroes and Demigods. Knoxville: U of TN Pr, 1995. The ballad reprinted here says that John's wife "Polly Anne drove steel like a man" when he was sick. 

Hicks, Ray and Luke Borrow. Music. Vidocassette (20 minutes). Appalachian Storyteller Ray Hicks Series. Part 5. Derry, NH: Chip Taylor Communications, 1997. Produced by Luke Barrow, Fandangle Films. "Some people call it mountain music, others describe it as hillbilly music. No matter what name it goes by, true Blue Ridge Mountain music is hearing Ray Hicks when he sings (with and without his harmonica) legendary American folk songs, such as Casey Jones, John Henry and Reuben Train" (WorldCat).

"John Henry." In John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax, eds. American Ballads and Folk Songs. New York: Macmillan, 1934. pp. 3-10. Several versions of the tale with background. Lyrics reprinted at The Mudcat Café, which also has a 1924 version from KY and a discussion forum on the origins of John Henry.

Seeger, Ruth Crawford. American Folk Songs for Children. Illus. Barbara Cooney. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1948, pp. 154-57. Includes, with music, "John Henry" from North Carolina and "Every Monday Morning" (More About John Henry)" from Arkansas.

Critton Hollow Stringband. "John Henry." In Poor Boy. Audiocassette. Recorded live at Star Theater, Berkeley Springs, WV, 1979. The band's address is Paw Paw, WV. Performed by Joe Hermann, Sam K. Hermann, Arnold Kempton, Patti Galatis Kempton. Included in these lyrics: "Some say he was born down in Texas/And some say he was born up in Maine/I just say he was a West Virginia man/And the leader of a steel drivin' chain gang."

We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. American folk songs performed by Bruce Springsteen and other musicians, taped at Springsteen's New Jersey farm. Music CD. Sony, 2006. A 40-minute film also includes performance of "John Henry" and "Froggie Went A-Courtin,'" "Shenandoah," and others. Audio clips available at

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.

"John Henry Blues" (folksong) from Ruth Ann Musick Collection. Traditions: A Journal of West Virginia Folk Culture and Educational Awareness Vol. 4, No. 1 (1996), p. 38. Published by
West Virginia Folklife Center, Fairmont State College.

Ritchie, Jean. Singing Family of the Cumberlands. Illus. Maurice Sendak. New York: Oxford, 1955. A personal and family history with a number of traditional song lyrics and melodies included, such as "John Henry."


Balcziak, Bill. John Henry. Illus. Drew Rose. Minneapolis: Compass Point Books, 2003. 32 pp. A picture book with sections retelling the "Man Versus Machine" legend, and stories called "Life as a Slave" and "Freedom at Last!" Another section explains the 130-year history of variations on the legendary man. A recipe for southern cornbread, a glossary, bibliography and index are included.

Black, Sheila, reteller. "John Henry." Illus. Gary Gianni. A Treasury of Children's Literature. Ed. Armand Eisen. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1992. The American Tales section also includes Brer Rabbit, Johnny Appleseed, and Paul Bunyan.

Blair, Walter. Tall Tale America A Legendary History of Our Humorous Heroes. Illus. Glen Rounds. New York: Coward-McCann, 1944. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1987. "This is a folksy history of the United States, told as if the characters were all real." Includes Daniel Boone, John Henry, Davy Crockett, and others.

Carmer, Carl Lamson. The Hurricane's Children. Illus. Elizabeth Black Carmer. New York: D. McKay, 1937. American tall tales, including "How Tony Beaver Built the Candy Dam," "How John Henry Beat the Steam Drill Down," and "How Davy Crockett Fiddled His Daughter Out of A Husband."

Duvall, Shelley, Danny Glover, Tom Hulce, Ray Danton, and Bridget Terry. John Henry. Shelley Duvall's Tall Tales & Legends. 1987. DVD. Washington, NY: Koch Vision, 2005.

Felton, Harold. John Henry and His Hammer. Illus. Aldren A. Watson. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1950. 82 pp. A chapter book with a ballad and score at the end. As the frontispiece says, "Watson's dramatic two-color drawings portray with sensitive appreciation the dignity and strength of this heroic character." In this book John Henry leaves home to find his own star and has jobs in different places before being hired at Big Bend Tunnel. He meets characters such as Casey Jones along the way. He has a friend L'il Bill, but not a wife.

Hall, Peg. Tales of American Folklore: Retold Timeless Classics. Cover-to-cover Books. Illus. Michael A. Aspengren. Logan, Iowa: Perfection Learning, 2000. 63 pp. Includes "John Henry," "The Play: John Henry," and four other American tall tales, retold by Peg Hall.

Henn, Mark, dir. John Henry. Animated Film. Disney, 2000. 10 min. Geoffrey Jones is the voice of John Henry. Alfre Woodard is Polly and the narrator, John Henry's wife telling the story to their son. An award-winning short film using older animation techniques. Sold in Disney's American Legends VHS and DVD, with tales of Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, and Casey Jones. Stories in the compilation introduced by James Earl Jones.

Jensen, Patsy. John Henry and his Mighty Hammer. Illus. Roseanne Litzinger. A Troll First-Start Tall Tale. Troll Associates, 1994. An easy reader in prose with brief background on the legend and bright illustrations. Mentions specific places associated with John Henry.

Jones, Raymond E. and John C. Stott, eds. A World of Stories: Traditional Tales for Children. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2006,  pp. 165-71. Prose tale from Irwin Shapiro, Tall Tales of America (Poughkeepsie, NY: Guild Press, 1958). This John Henry was born "way down south" near the Mississippi, in cotton country. His mother tries to keep him from going to the railroad and makes him a musician, then gets him picking cotton, but he's a "natural man" who has to wield the hammers. With his wife Polly Ann he settles in New Orleans and they have a son.  After he starts hammering, he travels around to eastern and western VA and other states, wherever railroad is being laid. He takes Polly to western VA to work on the C & O railroad and she drives steel when he is sick. His parents and wife try to convince him not to race the steam drill but he does. He sings his hammer song during the contest that kills him. 

Krensky, Stephen. John Henry. On My Own Folklore. Illus. Mark Oldroyd. Minneapolis: Millbrook Press, 2007. Easy reader picture book with introductory notes.

Lester, Julius. John Henry.  Illus. Jerry Pinkney. New York: Dial, 1994. Excellent picture book retelling of the legend. See cover picture, and Tracy Roberts' evaluations and annotated secondary sources in Adaptations of Minority Legends: A Look at a Re-Telling of "John Henry."  

Keats, Ezra Jack. John Henry: An American Legend. New York: Dragon Fly Books, 1965. Picture book by a prominent American artist of the mid-twentieth century. Picture of cover in AppLit.

Legend of John Henry. Film. Pyramid/Bosustow, 1974. 11 min. "Roberta Flack provides the musical accompaniment for this film about the folk hero. Features John Henry's famous race against the steam drill at the Big Bend Tunnel in Summers County. This movie has won several international awards and is recommended for children by Learning Magazine and the American Library Association." (description from Steve Fesenmaier's bibliography in AppLit of West Virginia and Appalachian Videos)

Malcolmson, Anne. Yankee Doodle's Cousins. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969. 260 pp.

Naden, C. J. John Henry. New Jersey: Troll, 1980. 48 pp.

Osborne, Mary Pope. American Tall Tales. Illus. Michael McCurdy. New York: Knopf, 1991. Includes "John Henry," historical background, a bibliography, and energetic tinted wood engravings.

Ottolenghi, Carol. John Henry. Illus. Steve Haefele. Brighter Child, Keepsake Story (picture book series). Columbus, OH: McGraw-Hill Children's Publishing, 2004. John Henry leaves home to perform many kinds of jobs, doing best at those that require hammering.  He wears a keepsake from his mother and does favors for people he meets. He marries a girl named Lucy Ann, whose aunt and uncle live near Big Bend tunnel. After the contest with the steam drill, John Henry is buried on the hillside overlooking the tunnel that he helped to dig." The end shows a modern train going through the tunnel, explaining that people who listen closely can still "hear the wind whispering, 'I was born with a hammer in my hand. Oh yes, I was born with a hammer in my hand." A final last page called "Is This Story True?" discusses the history of the real tunnel built  in WV in the 1870s.

Torrence, Jackie. Legends from the Black Tradition. Audiobook on tape. Weston, Conn: Weston Woods, 1982. "The Legend of John Henry" (also "The Legend of Annie Christmas," "The Legend of Stag-o-Lee," "High John the Conqueror," "How Brer Rabbit Outsmarted the Frogs").

"John Henry: The Steel-Driving Man." In Robert D. San Souci. Larger Than Life. New York: Doubleday, 1991.

"John Henry and the Double-Jointed Steam Drill." In Eirwin Shapiro. Heroes in American Folklore. New York: Julian Messner, 1962.

"Hammerman/John Henry." In Adrien Stoutenburg. American Tall Tales. Illus. Richard M. Powers. New York: Puffin, 1966. A small collection of prose stories about eight folk heroes, including Davy Crockett, with black and white prints. No background information.

"John Henry Races the Steam Drill." In Paul Robert Walker. Big Men, Big Country: A Collection of American Tall Tales. Illus. James Bernardin. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1993. Notes point out that by the end of the 1920s there were over 100 versions of this legend in ballads and hammer songs. Contains a dramatic realistic painting and a small drawing of John Henry. (The collection also includes Davy Crockett and 7 other heroes.)

"John Henry and the Machine in West Virginia." In Milton Rugoff, ed. A Harvest of World Folktales. Illus. Joseph Low. New York: Viking, 1949. Other American tales include "Jack and the Varmints," "Jack's Hunting Trips," "Old Gally Mander," "The Tar Baby," "Dicey -- and Orpus,"  "The Man and his Boots," "Big John the Conqueror," "Why Women Always Take Advantage of Men," "Davy Crockett: Sunrise in his Pocket," "Paul Bunyan's Big Griddle," "Paul's Cornstalk."

Novels and Drama

Hamilton, Virginia.  The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl.  New York:  HarperCollins, 1983. John Henry Roustabout is a character in this novel, brother to two other gods, Pearl and John de Conquer, who travel from Africa to help humans after slavery ends in the American South. John Henry is an outgoing and flamboyant character, a joker, drinker, fighter, gambler, and womanizer. He says he has traveled around and describes his work as a steel driver for the railroad. Folklore and history are combined when the mythical characters and Cherokees help former slaves travel from Georgia to Ohio. John Henry chooses to remain human and go on to Big Bend Tunnel in WV, to meet his mortal fate competing with the steam drill. More details at AppLit's Folklore in Books by Virginia Hamilton.

Bradford, Roark. John Henry. Woodcuts by J. J. Lankes. New York: The Literary Guild, 1931. A 25-chapter novel for adults by a native of Tennessee who spent parts of his life in Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, and other parts of the world. He tells the story from birth to "John Henry's Last Go Round." Not Appalachian, this John Henry is "born on the banks of the Black River [LA], where all good rousterbouts come from. He came into the world with a cotton-hook for a right hand and a river song on his tongue" (p. 1). He dies rolling cotton in a contest with a steam winch. By the end many women love him, and he has a wife named Julie Anne who picks up his cotton hook and dies "wid his hook in her hand" (p. 224). Verses from songs appear throughout the novel. [Note: an error about Bradford's birthplace that appeared here earlier has been corrected. He was born in Lauderdale County, Tennessee, in the Nankipoo-Knob Creek area. Born on a plantation, he became interested in African American culture and language through his acquaintance with African Americans at work and at church.]

Bradford, Roark. John Henry. Music by Jacques Wolfe. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1939. A musical play, set on "a steamboat landing in the Black River country, North Louisiana," like Bradford's novel. It was performed briefly on Broadway in 1940 with Paul Robeson in the title role,

Whitehead, Colson. John Henry Days. Random House, 2001. From "Listen to a Aug. 4, 2001, All Things Considered interview with Colson Whitehead about his novel . . . . Read an excerpt from the book" with pictures and links to other author information and background. The novel contains narratives "of diverse chronology and perspective around a single publicity-event-turned-catastrophe: the inauguration of the John Henry Days festival and official John Henry stamp in Talcott, West Virginia, in July, 1996."

Other Background

Adaptations of Minority Legends: A Look at a Re-Telling of "John Henry" by Tracy L. Roberts, in AppLit

American Folklore contains retellings of folktales from every state, including John Henry from WV.

Dundes, Alan, ed. Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel: Readings in the Interpretation of Afro-American Folklore. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973. Essays include "The Steel Drivin' Man" by Leon R. Harris and "The Career of 'John Henry'" by Richard M. Dorson (also essays by Zora Neale Hurston, including her discussion of High John de Conquer, and essays on Native American and African American folktales).

Garst, John. "Chasing John Henry in Alabama and Mississippi." Tributaries: Journal of the Alabama Folklife Association, Issue No. 5 (2002): pp. 92-130.

Garst, John. "On the Trail of the Real John Henry." History News Network. 26 Nov. 2006. Response by Scott Nelson. Debate by academic scholars about historical evidence for men named John Henry in Alabama, Virginia, West Virginia, and elsewhere.

"John Henry." National Public Radio Series "Present at the Creation: Exploring Icons of American Culture." Morning Edition. Sept. 2, 2002. Audio recording of musician and researcher Steve Wade's report is online with photos, art, recordings of different versions of the song, and lyrics of the first recorded version. The online text calls the song "the single most well known and often recorded American folk song." This excellent web site includes links to related NPR reports and recordings, bibliography, and recent research placing a real John Henry in Alabama.

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 (designed by Charles O. Cooper, 1972. Good pictures are also available at West Virginia's Rails - Talcott, WV at

Nelson, Scott Reynolds. "Steel Drivin' Man: The Untold Story of an American Legend." New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Uses historical evidence to make a case for identifying John Henry as a short man, John William Henry, working for the C & O Railroad from a Virginia jail. Reviewed by Jon Sobel in BC: Blogcritics Magazine 3 Dec. 2006. Also reviewed in many national publications. Nelson is a professor of history at the College of William and Mary.

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.

"John Henry." Section in teaching unit West Virginia's Appalachian Music and Literature by Avis Caynor and Reneé Wyatt (1997), with a variety of teaching materials on John Henry, including musical score, writing exercise on tall tales, illustrations, and discussion questions on John Henry and Tony Beaver (another Appalachian tall tale hero). Contains an audio version sung by folklorist Noel Tenney in traditional ballad style. (Formerly in West Virginia's World School web site, now reprinted in AppLit.)

Satire: "Modern-Day John Henry Dies Trying to Out-Spreadsheet Excel 11.0." The Onion 27 Feb. 2006.

See also:

Appalachian Picture Books: Tall Tales

Tall Tales and Jack Tales: Literature and Writing Activities

Compare with:

Other American tall tale heroes, such as the lumberjack Paul Bunyan. Stephen Kellogg has pictures books on Bunyan and other tall tales. AppLit's folktale collections bibliography includes Appalachian and American tall tales.

"Stagolee." In Julius Lester. Black Folktales. Illus. Tom Feelings. New York: Grove Press, 1969. Reprinted with a new introduction by Lester, 1991. pp. 75-90. Based on a folk song that Lester had recorded. Stagolee is like a tall tale hero when he beats all kinds of tough opponents, escapes death, and challenges God, Death and the Devil. He chooses to stay in Hell where the energetic black people are having more fun than he sees in Heaven. He is a lawless, hard-drinking womanizer from a Georgia plantation. Like some versions of John Henry's character, Stagolee is both criminal and well-loved. Lester includes ironic and humorous allusions to modern popular culture.

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