Appalachian Music and Literature
Illustration by Mark Clayton
"John Henry," the ballad,
tells the story of a steel-driving man who died in his
race against the steam drill at the Big Bend Tunnel, near Talcott, West Virginia,
on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad around 1870. Some think John Henry was a
real person, a large African American man who traveled along the Atlantic Coast
"driving a steel hammer" for the railroad.
One day the "Captain" of the job said he had a steam
drill that could work day and night and never get tired. The Captain said that
he would buy the machine if it could beat his best steel driver.
According to legend, a contest was held, and John Henry beat
the steam drill by three inches. But he died with his hammer in his hand.
The United States Postal Service has issued a stamp commemorating
"John Henry" is sung by the prominent folklorist
Noel Tenney. Notice the way he sings this ballad. It is different from what
you would hear on the radio or MTV. He sings this way to preserve the singing
style of the traditional ballad. (Traditional means doing things
the same way your older family members did. These traditions are passed down
to other generations by word of mouth.)
Virginia's Appalachian Music and Literature is a self-contained teaching
unit by Avis Caynor and Reneé Wyatt (1997), reprinted with permission
in 2003 in the larger web site AppLit.
list of AppLit pages on folklore
Index page on John Henry
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