John Henry (folklore)

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Statue of John Henry outside the town of Talcott in Summers County, West Virginia

John Henry is an African-American folk hero and tall tale. He is said to have worked as a "steel-driving man"—a man tasked with hammering a steel drill into rock to make holes for explosives to blast the rock in constructing a railroad tunnel. According to legend, John Henry's prowess as a steel-driver was measured in a race against a steam powered hammer, which he won, only to die in victory with his hammer in his hand and heart giving out from stress. The story of John Henry is told in a classic folk song, which exists in many versions, and has been the subject of numerous stories, plays, books and novels.[1][2] Various locations, including Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia, Lewis Tunnel in Virginia, and Coosa Mountain Tunnel in Alabama, have been suggested as the site of the contest.


A sign by the C&O railway line near Talcott, West Virginia.

The historicity of many aspects of the John Henry legend is subject to debate.[1][2] Several locations have been put forth for the tunnel on which John Henry died.

Big Bend Tunnel[edit]

Guy B. Johnson, a Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina, investigated the legend of John Henry in the late 1920s. He concluded that John Henry was a real person who worked on and died at the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway's Big Bend Tunnel. The 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 Ben' Tunnel on the C. & O." Johnson visited the area around 1929 and found several men who said that they were boys of 12 or 14 when the tunnel was begun and that they could remember seeing John Henry, a large, powerful man. Although most of these men had heard of but not seen the famous contest between John Henry and the steam drill, Johnson ultimately was able to find a 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."[3]

Talcott holds a yearly festival named for Henry and a statue and memorial plaque have been placed along a highway south of Talcott as it crosses over the Big Bend tunnel.[4] (Coords 37°38′56.31″N 80°46′03.60″W / 37.6489750°N 80.7676667°W / 37.6489750; -80.7676667)

Lewis Tunnel[edit]

In the 2006 book Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend, Scott Reynolds Nelson, an associate professor of history at the College of William and Mary, contends that the John Henry of the ballad was based on a different real person, the 20-year-old New Jersey-born African-American freeman, John William Henry (prisoner #497 in the Virginia penitentiary). Nelson speculates that 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, he was among the many convicts released by the warden to work as leased labor on the C&O Railway.[5]:39

According to Nelson, conditions at the Virginia prison were so terrible that the warden, an idealistic Quaker from Maine, believed 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). Nelson asserts that a steam drill race at the Big Bend Tunnel would have been impossible because railroad records do not indicate a steam drill being used there.[6]

Instead, Nelson argues that the contest must have taken place 40 miles away at the Lewis Tunnel, between Talcott and Millboro, Virginia, where records indicate that prisoners did indeed work beside steam drills night and day.[7] Nelson also argues that the verses of the ballad about John Henry being buried near "the white house", "in sand", somewhere that locomotives roar, mean that Henry's body was buried in the cemetery behind the main building of the Virginia penitentiary, which photos from that time indicate was painted white, and where numerous unmarked graves have been found.[8]

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. The evidence assembled by Nelson, though suggestive, is circumstantial; Nelson himself 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.

Coosa Mountain Tunnel[edit]

There is another tradition that John Henry's famous race took place, not in West Virginia, but rather near Leeds, Alabama. Professor Johnson in the late 1920s received letters saying that John Henry worked on the A.G.S. Railway's Cruzee or Curzey Mountain Tunnel in 1882, and a third letter saying it was at Oak Mountain in 1887, but he discounted these reports after the A.G.S. told him that the railway had no such tunnel.[3] Retired chemistry professor and folklorist John Garst, of the University of Georgia, has argued that the contest happened at the Coosa Mountain Tunnel or the Oak Mountain Tunnel of the Columbus and Western Railway (now part of Norfolk Southern Railway) near Leeds on September 20, 1887.[9]

Based on documentation that corresponds with the account of C. C. Spencer, who claimed in the 1920s to have witnessed the contest, Garst speculates that John Henry may have been a man named Henry who was born a slave to P.A.L. Dabney, the father of the chief engineer of that railroad, in 1850.[9] Since 2007, the city of Leeds has honored John Henry's legend during an annual September festival, held on the third weekend in September, called the Leeds Downtown Folk Festival & John Henry Celebration.[10]

Garst and Nelson have debated the merits of their divergent research conclusions.[11] Other claims have been made over the years that places Henry and his contest in Kentucky or Jamaica.[12]

Cultural references and influence[edit]

The tale of John Henry has been used as a symbol in many cultural movements, including labor movements[13] and the Civil Rights Movement.[14]


The story of John Henry is traditionally told through two types of songs: ballads, commonly referred to as "The Ballad of John Henry", and work songs known as hammer songs, each with wide-ranging and varying lyrics.[2][12] Some songs, and some early folk historian research, conflate the songs about John Henry with those of John Hardy, a West Virginian outlaw.[12] 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 race against the steam hammer, Henry's death and burial, and the reaction of John Henry's wife.[12]

The well-known narrative ballad of "John Henry" is usually sung in at an upbeat tempo. The hammer songs (or work songs) associated with the "John Henry" ballad, however, are not. Sung slowly and deliberately, 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.[5]: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 blues, folk, and rock musicians of different ethnic backgrounds. Many notable musicians have recorded John Henry ballads, including: Bill Monroe, Johnny Cash,[16] Drive By Truckers,[17] Joe Bonamassa,[12] Furry Lewis,[2] Big Bill Broonzy,[2] Pink Anderson,[12] Fiddlin' John Carson,[12] Uncle Dave Macon,[12] J. E. Mainer,[12] Leon Bibb,[12] Lead Belly,[12] Woody Guthrie,[12] Paul Robeson,[15] Pete Seeger,[15] Van Morrison,[15] Bruce Springsteen,[15] Gillian Welch,[15] Cuff the Duke,[15] Ramblin' Jack Elliott,[12] Jerry Reed,[12] Jerry Lee Lewis.,[12] Merle Travis[citation needed], The Supremes, and Harry Belafonte, Mississippi John Hurt.

The band They Might Be Giants named their fifth studio album after him.


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."[18] A 1948 obituary for Bradford described John Henry as "a better piece of native folklore than Paul Bunyan."[19]

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."[14]

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.[20]

The DC Comics superhero Steel's civilian name, "John Henry Irons," is inspired by John Henry.[21]

The Ghost of John Henry appears as a character in Elizabeth Bear's novel "One Eyed Jack."


In 1973, Nick Bosustow and David Adams co-produced an 11-minute animated short, The Legend of John Henry for Paramount Pictures.[22]

In 1995, John Henry appeared in the Disney film Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill portrayed by Roger Aaron Brown.

In 1996, the U.S. Post Office issued a John Henry 32-cent postage stamp. It was part of a set honoring American folk heroes that included Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill and Casey at the Bat.[23]

The AI created by Zeira corporation in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is called John Henry, referencing the struggle between man and machine.

In the Gravity Falls episode "Golf Wars," a Lilliputtian miner named Big Henry plays homage to John Henry, dying in a similar fashion.

In the 2014 video game, Wasteland 2, a group of "rail nomads" worship John Henry as the god of trains and railways.

In the 2015 video game Code Name: S.T.E.A.M., John Henry is part of the elite fighting force "Unit S.T.E.A.M.", alongside other figures of American fiction and folklore.

John appeared in a Pinky and the Brain short called Big Johnny Brain Jones Peachpit Bill Boone Crockett, where he and every character lives in a town called "Folkheroville".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "John Henry, Present at the Creation", Stephen Wade, NPR, September 2, 2002
  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, USA. ISBN 0-19-976650-9. 
  3. ^ a b Johnson, Guy (Feb 2, 1930). "First Hero of Negro Folk Lore". Modesto Bee and News-Herald. p. 22. Retrieved Sep 5, 2014 – via  open access publication - free to read
  4. ^ "Talcott prepares for John Henry Days", Sarah Plummer, The Register-Herald, June 28, 2010
  5. ^ a b Nelson, Scott Reynolds (2006). Steel drivin' man: John Henry, the untold story of an American legend. Oxford [Oxfordshire]: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-530010-6. 
  6. ^ Grimes, William. "Taking Swings at a Myth, With John Henry the Man", New York Times, Books section, October 18, 2006.
  7. ^ Downes, Lawrence. "John Henry Days", New York Times, Books section, April 18, 2008.
  8. ^ "John Henry - The Story - Lewis Tunnel". 2006-07-13. Retrieved 2010-07-20. 
  9. ^ a b Garst, John (2002). "Chasing John Henry in Alabama and Mississippi: A Personal Memoir of Work in Progress". Tributaries: Journal of the Alabama Folklife Association 5: 92–129. 
  10. ^ "Free Leeds Downtown Folk Festival is Saturday & Sunday", Christie Dedman -- The Birmingham News The Birmingham News, September 15, 2011

    "John Henry in Leeds", Leeds Folk Festival

  11. ^ Garst, John (November 27, 2006) "On the Trail of the Real John Henry". History News Network, George Mason University, includes rebuttal by Scott Nelson
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Cohen, Norm (2000). Long steel rail: the railroad in American folksong. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-06881-5. 
  13. ^ 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. 
  14. ^ a b Nikola-Lisa W (Spring 1998). "John Henry: Then and Now". African American Review 32 (1): 51–56. JSTOR 3042267. 
  15. ^ a b c d e f g Bicknell J (Spring 2009). "Reflections on "John Henry": Ethical Issues in Singing Performance". The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 67 (2): 173–180. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6245.2009.01346.x. 
  16. ^ The World of Johnny Cash
  17. ^ The Dirty South (album)#Track listing
  18. ^ Sterling A. Brown. "Negro Character as Seen by White Authors", The Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Apr., 1933), pp. 179-203
  19. ^ "Bradford was one of Immortals", Robert C. Ruark, The Evening Independent, November 22, 1948
  20. ^ "Freeloading Man", Jonathan Franzen, New York Times, May 13, 2001
  21. ^ Action Comics #4 (February 2012)
  22. ^ 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 1-55783-671-X. 
  23. ^ NEW STAMPS TELL TALL TALES OF FOLK HEROES, Deseret News, July 24, 1996

External links[edit]

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, N.Y.: 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
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