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John Henry (folklore)

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John Henry
Statue of John Henry outside the town of Talcott in Summers County, West Virginia
Born1840s or 1850s
OccupationRailroad worker
Known forAmerican folk hero

John Henry is an American folk hero. An African American freedman, he is said to have worked as a "steel-driving man"—a man tasked with hammering a steel drill into a rock to make holes for explosives to blast the rock in constructing a railroad tunnel.

The story of John Henry is told in a classic blues folk song about his duel against a drilling machine, which exists in many versions, and has been the subject of numerous stories, plays, books, and novels.[1][2]


Plaque celebrating the legend of John Henry (Talcott, West Virginia)

According to legend, John Henry's prowess as a steel driver was measured in a race against a steam-powered rock drill, a race that he won only to die in victory with a hammer in hand as his heart gave out from stress. Various locations, including Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia,[3] Lewis Tunnel in Virginia, and Coosa Mountain Tunnel in Alabama, have been suggested as the site of the contest.

The contest involved John Henry as the hammerman working in partnership with a shaker, who would hold a chisel-like drill against mountain rock, while the hammerman struck a blow with a hammer. Then the shaker would begin rocking and rolling: wiggling and rotating the drill to optimize its bite. The steam drill machine could drill but it could not shake the chippings away, so its bit could not drill further and frequently broke down.


The historical accuracy of many of the aspects of the John Henry legend are subject to debate.[1][2] According to researcher Scott Reynolds Nelson, the actual John Henry was born in 1848 in New Jersey and died of silicosis and not due to exhaustion of work.[4]

Several locations have been put forth for the tunnel on which John Henry died.

Big Bend Tunnel[edit]

Sociologist Guy B. Johnson investigated the legend of John Henry in the late 1920s. He concluded that John Henry might have worked on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway's (C&O Railway) Big Bend Tunnel but that "one can make out a case either for or against" it.[5][3] That tunnel was built near Talcott, West Virginia, from 1870 to 1872 (according to Johnson's dating), and named for the big bend in the Greenbrier River nearby.

Some versions of the song refer to the location of John Henry's death as "The Big Bend Tunnel on the C. & O."[3] In 1927, Johnson visited the area and found one man who said he had seen it.

This man, known as Neal Miller, told me in plain words how he had come to the tunnel with his father at 17, how he carried water and drills for the steel drivers, how he saw John Henry every day, and, finally, all about the contest between John Henry and the steam drill.

"When the agent for the steam drill company brought the drill here," said Mr. Miller, "John Henry wanted to drive against it. He took a lot of pride in his work and he hated to see a machine take the work of men like him.

"Well, they decided to hold a test to get an idea of how practical the steam drill was. The test went on all day and part of the next day.

"John Henry won. He wouldn't rest enough, and he overdid. He took sick and died soon after that."

Mr. Miller described the steam drill in detail. I made a sketch of it and later when I looked up pictures of the early steam drills, I found his description correct. I asked people about Mr. Miller's reputation, and they all said, "If Neal Miller said anything happened, it happened."[6]

When Johnson contacted Chief Engineer C. W. Johns of the C&O Railroad regarding Big Bend Tunnel, Johns replied that "no steam drills were ever used in this tunnel." When asked about documentation from the period, Johns replied that "all such papers have been destroyed by fire."[5]

Talcott holds a yearly festival named for Henry, and a statue and memorial plaque have been placed in John Henry Historical Park at the eastern end of the tunnel.[7]

Lewis Tunnel[edit]

In the 2006 book Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend, historian Scott Reynolds Nelson detailed his discovering documentation of a 19-year-old African-American man alternately referred to as John Henry, John W. Henry, or John William Henry in previously unexplored prison records of the Virginia Penitentiary. At the time, penitentiary inmates were hired out as laborers to various contractors, and this John Henry was notated as having headed the first group of prisoners to be assigned tunnel work. Nelson also discovered the C&O's tunneling records, which the company believed had been destroyed by fire. Henry, like many African Americans, might have come to Virginia to work on the clean-up of the battlefields after the Civil War. Arrested and tried for burglary, John Henry was in the first group of convicts released by the warden to work as leased labor on the C&O Railway.[8]: 39 

According to Nelson, objectionable conditions at the Virginia prison led the warden to believe that the prisoners, many of whom had been arrested on trivial charges, would be better clothed and fed if they were released as laborers to private contractors. (He subsequently changed his mind about this and became an opponent of the convict labor system.) In the C&O's tunneling records, Nelson found no evidence of a steam drill used in Big Bend Tunnel.[9]

The records Nelson found indicate that the contest took place 40 miles (64 km) away at the Lewis Tunnel, between Talcott and Millboro, Virginia, where prisoners did indeed work beside steam drills night and day.[10] Nelson also argues that the verses of the ballad about John Henry being buried near "the white house," "in the sand," somewhere that locomotives roar, mean that Henry's body was buried in a ditch behind the so-called white house of the Virginia State Penitentiary, which photos from that time indicate was painted white, and where numerous unmarked graves have been found.[11]

Prison records for John William Henry stopped in 1873, suggesting that he was kept on the record books until it was clear that he was not coming back and had died. Nelson stresses that John Henry would have been representative of the many hundreds of convict laborers who were killed in unknown circumstances tunneling through the mountains or who died shortly afterwards of silicosis from dust created by the drills and blasting.

In other media[edit]

The tale of John Henry has been used as a symbol in many cultural movements, including labor movements[12] and the Civil Rights Movement.[13] Philosopher Jeanette Bickell said of the John Henry legend:

John Henry is a symbol of physical strength and endurance, of exploited labor, of the dignity of a human being against the degradations of the machine age, and of racial pride and solidarity. During World War II his image was used in U.S. government propaganda as a symbol of social tolerance and diversity.[14]


  • In 1995, John Henry was portrayed in the movie Tall Tale by Roger Aaron Brown. A former slave, John Henry appears to a runaway farmer's son named Daniel to both protect him from ruffians (alongside fellow folk hero figures Daniel's father told his son about, Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan) and impart life lesson wisdom to him.
  • In 2018, a film centered around characters from classic American folklore titled John Henry and the Statesmen was announced to be in development. Intended to be the start of a new film franchise, it includes Dwayne Johnson cast to portray John Henry. Jake Kasdan will serve as director, based on the original story by Tom Wheeler and Hiram Garcia. Johnson, Garcia, Kasdan, and Beau Flynn will serve as producers. The project will be a joint-venture production between Seven Bucks Productions, Netflix Original Films, and Flynn Picture Company; and distributed by Netflix as a streaming exclusive movie.[15] In November 2021, producer Hiram Garcia stated that development on the project continues, while confirming that the most recent draft of the script had been completed while it requires additional work.[16]
  • In 2020, Terry Crews played a modern-day adaptation of the character in John Henry. The plot centers around a former gang member who takes in two young teens who are on the run from the leader of his past. The film was released by Saban Films.[17]


  • In 1946, animator George Pal adapted the tale of John Henry into a short film titled John Henry and the Inky-Poo as part of his theatrical stop-motion Puppetoons series. The short is considered a milestone in American cinema as one of the first films to have a positive view of African-American folklore.[18][19]
  • In 1974, Nick Bosustow and David Adams co-produced an 11-minute animated short, The Legend of John Henry, for Paramount Pictures.[20]
  • The character appears in a Walt Disney Feature Animation short film, John Henry (2000). Directed by Mark Henn, plans for theatrical releases in 2000 and 2001 fell through after the short had a limited Academy Award qualifying run in Los Angeles;[21] a shorter version was released as the only new entry in the direct-to-video release Disney's American Legends (2001). It was eventually released in its original format as an interstitial on the Disney Channel, and later as part of the home video compilation Walt Disney Animation Studios Short Films Collection in 2015.
  • The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy Season 6 episode "Short Tall Tales" shows a parody of John Henry's tale with Irwin in the role. Grim decides to sabotage the story by powering up the drilling machine to go faster, and Irwin forces himself to hammer through the mountain faster to surpass it, but by doing so he ends up breaking into the 8th dimension, where aliens feed him to one of their giant monstrous females.
  • John Henry is featured in the 20th episode of Season 5 of Teen Titans Go!, "Tall Titan Tales".
  • John Henry appears in the Pinky and the Brain episode "A Legendary Tail".
  • John Henry appears in a segment of the short-lived Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventures TV series. In an episode titled "Pocket Watch Full of Miracles", which aired in November 1990, John Henry is portrayed as having the mannerisms of Muhammad Ali. He challenges and beats a steam-powered hammer driven by his boss. His prize is an antique pocket watch owned by Queen Victoria. The watch is given to the titular Bill and Ted, only to be immediately destroyed by a runaway train.



Destination Freedom, a 1950's American old time radio series written by Richard Durham, featured John Henry in a July 1949 episode.[23]


The story of John Henry is traditionally told through two types of songs: ballads, commonly called "The Ballad of John Henry", and "hammer songs" (a type of work song), each with wide-ranging and varying lyrics.[2][24] Some songs, and some early folk historian research, conflate the songs about John Henry with those of John Hardy, a West Virginian outlaw.[24] Ballads about John Henry's life typically contain four major components: a premonition by John Henry as a child that steel-driving would lead to his death, the lead-up to and the results of the legendary race against the steam hammer, Henry's death and burial, and the reaction of his wife.[24]

The well-known narrative ballad of "John Henry" is usually sung in an upbeat tempo. Hammer songs associated with the "John Henry" ballad, however, are not. Sung more slowly and deliberately, often with a pulsating beat suggestive of swinging the hammer, these songs usually contain the lines "This old hammer killed John Henry / but it won't kill me." Nelson explains that:

... workers managed their labor by setting a "stint," or pace, for it. Men who violated the stint were shunned ... Here was a song that told you what happened to men who worked too fast: they died ugly deaths; their entrails fell on the ground. You sang the song slowly, you worked slowly, you guarded your life, or you died.[8]: 32 

There is some controversy among scholars over which came first, the ballad or the hammer songs. Some scholars have suggested that the "John Henry" ballad grew out of the hammer songs, while others believe that the two were always entirely separate.

Songs featuring the story of John Henry have been recorded by many musical artists and bands of different ethnic backgrounds. These include:

"Gonna Die With My Hammer in My Hand", recorded in 1927 and compiled in the Anthology of American Folk Music (1952)[25]
"John Henry and the Steam Drill" and "Natural Man", both on Land of Giants (1964)[28]

The story also inspired the Aaron Copland's orchestral composition "John Henry" (1940, revised 1952), the 1994 chamber music piece Come Down Heavy by Evan Chambers and the 2009 chamber music piece Steel Hammer by the composer Julia Wolfe.[40][41]

They Might Be Giants named their fifth studio album after John Henry as an allusion to their usage of a full band on this album rather than the drum machine that they had employed previously.[42]

The American cowpunk band Nine Pound Hammer is named after the traditional description of the hammer John Henry wielded.

Bengalee singer-songwriter and musician Hemanga Biswas (1912–1987), considered as the Father of the Indian People's Theater Association Movement in Assam inspired by 'John Henry', the American ballad translated the song in Bengali as well as the Assamese language and also composed its music for which he was well recognized among the masses.[43][44] Bangladeshi mass singer Fakir Alamgir later covered Biswas' version of the song.[45][46]


  • Henry is the subject of the 1931 Roark Bradford novel John Henry, illustrated by noted woodcut artist J. J. Lankes. The novel was adapted into a stage musical in 1940, starring Paul Robeson in the title role.[2] According to Steven Carl Tracy, Bradford's works were influential in broadly popularizing the John Henry legend beyond railroad and mining communities and outside of African American oral histories.[2]
  • In a 1933 article published in The Journal of Negro Education, Bradford's John Henry was criticized for "making over a folk-hero into a clown."[47] A 1948 obituary for Bradford described John Henry as "a better piece of native folklore than Paul Bunyan."[48]
  • Ezra Jack Keats's John Henry: An American Legend, published in 1965, is a notable picture book chronicling the history of John Henry and portraying him as the "personification of the medieval Everyman who struggles against insurmountable odds and wins."[13]
  • Colson Whitehead's 2001 novel John Henry Days uses the John Henry myth as story background. Whitehead fictionalized the John Henry Days festival in Talcott, West Virginia and the release of the John Henry postage stamp in 1996.[49]
  • In his nonfiction account Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend (Oxford University Press 2008), historian Scott Reynolds Nelson attempts to find the real man behind the legend, with a particular focus on Reconstruction-era Virginia and the use of prison labor for building railroads.
  • The textbook titled American Music: A Panorama by Daniel Kingman displays the lyrics of the ballad titled "John Henry", explores its style and relates the history of the hero. That's in Chapter 2: The African–American Tradition.
  • Elements of John Henry's legend were featured in DC Comics.
  • Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame M'balia is a juvenile fantasy novel about seventh grader Tristan Strong who travels to another world, Alke, and encounters black African and African-American gods. These include Br'er Rabbit, Anansi, and John Henry. John Henry is a protector and defender of the inhabitants of Alke against 'haints' and monsters. In the second novel of the trilogy, John Henry is nearly defeated by his own hammer, wielded by a spirit gone mad with grief.
  • John Henry the Revelator[51] by Constantine von Hoffman is a magical realist novel, in which a teenage boy in 1930s Alabama, Moses Crawford, acquires superpowers and helps challenge the nation's white power structure. The black community calls Crawford John Henry, after the folk hero, because no one is aware of his true identity.
  • He appears as a character in Peter Clines' novel Paradox Bound.
  • He makes an appearance in the IDW Publishing miniseries The Transformers: Hearts of Steel, with the steel-driving machine being the alt mode of the Autobot Bumblebee, who ends up befriending Henry.
  • His descendant, Jo Henry, appears as a character beginning in John G. Hartness' book "Heaven Can Wait", book #8 of his "Quincy Harker, Demon Hunter" series. Several references to John Henry appear throughout this and following books that continue Jo's character.[52]

United States postage stamp[edit]

In 1996, the US Postal Service issued a John Henry postage stamp. It was part of a set honoring American folk heroes that included Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill and Casey at the Bat.[53]

Video games[edit]

  • John Henry was featured as a fictional character in the 2014 video game Wasteland 2. The story is referenced by various NPCs throughout the game and is also available in full as a series of in game books which tell the story of the competition between John Henry and a contingent of robotic workers.[54]
  • He also appeared as a playable character in the 3DS game Code Name: S.T.E.A.M..

See also[edit]

  • John Henryism – Strategy for coping with prolonged exposure to stress
  • Alexey Stakhanov – Soviet miner and national hero
  • Paul Bunyan – Giant lumberjack in American folklore
  • Ole Pete – Folk legend of Port Tampa, Florida
  • Rosie the Riveter – Cultural icon of the US during World War II


  1. ^ a b Stephen Wade (2 September 2002). "John Henry, Present at the Creation". NPR. Archived from the original on 12 July 2012.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Tracy, Steven C.; Bradford, Roark (2011). John Henry: Roark Bradford's Novel and Play. Oxford University Press, US. ISBN 978-0199766505.
  3. ^ a b c Giles Oakley (1997). The Devil's Music. Da Capo Press. p. 38. ISBN 978-0306807435.
  4. ^ Grimes, William (2006-10-18). "Taking Swings at a Myth, With John Henry the Man (Published 2006)". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2021-02-08.
  5. ^ a b Johnson, Guy B. (1929). John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend. Chapel Hill: UNC Press. pp. 44–49.
  6. ^ Johnson, Guy (2 February 1930). "First Hero of Negro Folk Lore". Modesto Bee and News-Herald. p. 22. Retrieved 5 September 2014 – via Newspapers.com. Open access icon
  7. ^ "Park Map". John Henry Historical Park. Retrieved June 12, 2023.
  8. ^ a b Nelson, Scott Reynolds (2006). Steel drivin' man: John Henry, the untold story of an American legend. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0195300109.
  9. ^ Grimes, William. "Taking Swings at a Myth, With John Henry the Man", The New York Times, Books section, 18 October 2006.
  10. ^ Downes, Lawrence. "John Henry Days", The New York Times, Books section, 18 April 2008.
  11. ^ "John Henry – The Story – Lewis Tunnel". Ibiblio.org. 13 July 2006. Retrieved 20 July 2010.
  12. ^ Singer A (Winter 1997). "Using Songs to Teach Labor History". OAH Magazine of History. 11 (2): 13–16. doi:10.1093/maghis/11.2.13. JSTOR 25163131.
  13. ^ a b Nikola-Lisa W (Spring 1998). "John Henry: Then and Now". African American Review. 32 (1): 51–56. doi:10.2307/3042267. JSTOR 3042267.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g Bicknell J (Spring 2009). "Reflections on "John Henry": Ethical Issues in Singing Performance" (PDF). The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 67 (2): 173–180. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6245.2009.01346.x.
  15. ^ Kroll, Justin (October 9, 2018). "Dwayne Johnson to Star in Netflix's 'John Henry and the Statesmen'". Variety. Retrieved January 12, 2022.
  16. ^ Meyer, Joshua (November 5, 2021). "Dwayne Johnson's John Henry Movie, Which Released A Trailer Three Years Ago, Is 'Still Totally Happening' [Exclusive]". Slash Film. Retrieved January 12, 2022.
  17. ^ "John Henry: Official Trailer". YouTube. Archived from the original on 2021-11-11.
  18. ^ Shadow and Act (20 April 2017). "Have You Seen 'John Henry and the Inky-Poo'? ("1st Hollywood Film to Feature African American Folklore in a Positive Light")". Shadow and Act. Shadow & Act. Retrieved 22 May 2019.
  19. ^ Lehman, Christopher (7 January 2019). "The George Pal Puppetoons and Jasper – Part 4". Cartoon Research. Jerry Beck. Retrieved 22 May 2019.
  20. ^ Lenburg, Jeff (2006). Who's Who in Animated Cartoons: An International Guide to Film and Television's Award-Winning and Legendary Animators. New York: Applause Books. ISBN 978-1557836717.
  21. ^ Hill, Jim (22 February 2001). "A black hero comes up short". Orlando Weekly. Retrieved 3 November 2015.
  22. ^ Saul of the Mole Men: 'A Hammer in His Hand', IGN, 9 April 2007, retrieved 2021-08-01
  23. ^ ""The Legend of John Henry"". Archived from the original on 2022-11-12. Retrieved 2022-11-12.
  24. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Cohen, Norm (2000). Long steel rail: the railroad in American folksong. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0252068812.
  25. ^ Haddox, John Christopher. "The Williamson Brothers and Curry". West Virginia University. Retrieved 11 June 2023.
  26. ^ "Brunswick matrix C1024-C1025. John Henry / Henry Thomas". Discography of American Historical Recordings. Retrieved 11 February 2024.
  27. ^ Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969: Vols 1&2, Third Man Records, Americana Music Productions, Inc. 2019
  28. ^ "The New Christy Minstrels – Land of Giants Album Reviews, Songs & More | AllMusic". AllMusic.
  29. ^ "The Legend of John Henry's Hammer" and "Nine Pound Hammer", both on Blood, Sweat and Tears; Cash also recorded a shorter version of the former as "John Henry" with a different account of the legend for Destination Victoria Station
  30. ^ Merle Travis – John Henry, Composed by Traditional at AllMusic. Retrieved 18 September 2015.
  31. ^ Harry Belafonte – John Henry at AllMusic. Retrieved 18 September 2015.
  32. ^ Giles Oakley (1997). The Devil's Music. Da Capo Press. p. 39. ISBN 978-0306807435.
  33. ^ Flipside of "Rock Island Line"
  34. ^ album Long Time Gone 1979
  35. ^ "Nine Pound Hammer" on the 1968 LP The Voice of the Turtle
  36. ^ "They Killed John Henry" on his 2009 album, Midnight at the Movies
  37. ^ "John Henry" on his 2017 album Folksinger Vol. 2
  38. ^ "John Henry Split This Heart" on his 2003 album The Magnolia Electric Co.
  39. ^ "John Henry" on his 2006 album Backslider
  40. ^ Kozinn, Allan (22 November 2009). "The John Henry Who Might Have Been". The New York Times. Retrieved 28 September 2015.
  41. ^ Reinthaler, Joan (23 November 2009). "Review: Bang on a Can All-Stars and Trio Mediaeval Perform 'Steel Hammer'". The Washington Post. Retrieved 28 September 2015.
  42. ^ "tmbg.com information on John Henry". Archived from the original on June 6, 1997. Retrieved 2017-04-25.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link). Retrieved 2012-08-10.
  43. ^ John Henry Hemanga Biswas, archived from the original on 2021-11-11, retrieved 2020-05-15
  44. ^ Hujuri, Raktima (15 July 2015). "Shodhganga : a reservoir of Indian theses @ INFLIBNET". hdl:10603/45142. Retrieved 15 May 2020.
  45. ^ "Fakir Alamgir performs live on RTV". 26 February 2010.
  46. ^ "Fakir Alamgir holds sway". 5 May 2013.
  47. ^ Sterling A. Brown. "Negro Character as Seen by White Authors", The Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Apr., 1933), pp. 179–203
  48. ^ "Bradford was one of Immortals", Robert C. Ruark, The Evening Independent, 22 November 1948
  49. ^ "Freeloading Man", Jonathan Franzen, New York Times, 13 May 2001
  50. ^ Action Comics #4 (February 2012)
  51. ^ "John Henry the Revelator", Constantine von Hoffman, Kirkus Reviews 18 March 2022
  52. ^ "Heaven Can Wait (Quincy Harker, #2.4)".
  53. ^ Associated Press (July 24, 1996). "NEW STAMPS TELL TALL TALES OF FOLK HEROES". desertnews.com. Archived from the original on October 21, 2013.
  54. ^ "The Story of John Henry – Official Wasteland 3 Wiki". wasteland.gamepedia.com. Retrieved 24 May 2017.

Further reading[edit]

  • Johnson, Guy B. (1929). John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press
  • Chappell, Louis W. (1933). John Henry; A Folk-Lore Study. Reprinted 1968. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press
  • Keats, Ezra Jack (1965). John Henry, An American Legend. New York: Pantheon Books.
  • Williams, Brett (1983). John Henry: A Bio-Bibliography by Brett Williams. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press
  • Nelson, Scott. "Who Was John Henry? Railroad Construction, Southern Folklore, and the Birth of Rock and Roll", Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas Summer 2005 2(2): 53–80; doi:10.1215/15476715-2-2-53
  • Garst, John F. (2022). John Henry and His People: The Historical Origin and Lore of America's Great Folk Ballad. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company.

External links[edit]