West Virginia's Appalachian Music and Literature

John Henry

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.    

 Listen to"John Henry," sung by Noel Tenney.

"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.)

Learn to Sing
"John Henry"

Meet John
Henry Activity

a Ballad

"Folk Heroes"


West 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.

Site Index
Complete list of AppLit pages on folklore
AppLit Folktale Index page on John Henry

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