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John Henry: The Ballad and the Legend

What's an article on John Henry doing in AB Bookman's Weekly? Are we going to collect both books about him?' Ha, Ha! You may think that such a joke hits the spike on the head, but in fact the material on John Henry is plentiful, and not a few pieces pose a serious challenge to the collector. Indeed, I can personally testify to the difficulty of some of the items in the canon.

Published on 23 Feb. 2018

By Paul Garon

What's an article on John Henry doing in AB Bookman's Weekly? Are we going to collect both books about him?' Ha, Ha! You may think that such a joke hits the spike on the head, but in fact the material on John Henry is plentiful, and not a few pieces pose a serious challenge to the collector. Indeed, I can personally testify to the difficulty of some of the items in the canon.

Those interested in pursuit of the John Henry trail come at it from varied perspectives. Some are record collectors, determined to have every recording of John Henry, from Leadbelly's, to Burl Ives', to Big Bill Broonzy's, to Woody Guthrie's, etc. There are probably hundreds of recordings -- Broonzy alone has recorded it many times -- and at least two discographies exist: One is in Norm Cohen's Long Steel Rail (1) and another is in Brett Williams' John Henry: A Bio-Bibliography. (2)

Some collectors are folklorists, both amateur and professional, interested in ballad migration and variant forms of the ballad. One prominent folklorist has made a minor specialty of the graphic depiction of folklore, and his collection of John Henry graphics was the subject of a tantalizing article. (3) Others are interested in the cultural implications of songs and legends like John Henry, while others are concerned to illuminate how the white tradition and the African American tradition have interacted in the construction and perpetuation of the John Henry legacy.

Finally, there are book collectors, eager to own all the major works on John Henry, as well as the countless printed versions of the ballad. That's where you and I come in.

But first, some history. When we talk about "John Henry," we may be referring to a ballad, a work song, a folk hero, or a legend. Most familiar is the character John Henry, the man who drove steel on the C & O Road and died with his hammer in his hand. His feat(s) have been memorialized in the ballad, one familiar verse of which goes,

When John Henry was a little baby,
Sitting on his Mother's knee,
Says, "The Big Bend Tunnel on the C and O road
Is going to be the death of me."

In the first quarter of the century, several scholars confused John Henry with the outlaw John Hardy, both of whom were the subject of ballads, and this led to considerable misunderstanding. A typical verse of John Hardy goes,

John Hardy was a desperate man,
Carried a gun and a razor every day;
He killed a man in Shylo town,
Ought to see John Hardy get away.

But John Hardy was a famous African American bad man, not a steel driver, although the confusion that prevailed, significantly enough so that it was even perpetuated by ballad scholar John Harrington Cox in his Folk-songs of the South6, suggested that as both John Henry and John Hardy were steel drivers (false), they were in fact the same person. In Folk-songs of the South, Cox groups the John Henry songs with the John Hardy songs.

Another source of confusion is the work songs, or hammer songs, that mention John Henry. The most famous of these are in the Take This Hammer or Nine Pound Hammer family, and were often sung to the rhythmic pounding of the hammer or ax. Common verses include,

This old hammer killed John Henry
But it won't kill me, Lord, it won't kill me.
Take this hammer, carry it to the Captain,
Tell him I'm gone, tell him I'm gone.

For the sake of brevity, we will not dwell on the Nine Pound Hammer group of songs, except to mention that thorough discussions can be found in Long Steel Rail (7) and Only A Miner (8).

The John Henry ballad with which we are so familiar tells a basic story, in spite of its seemingly infinite number of verses. Often the ballad begins with a view of John Henry as a baby on his mother's or father's knee, a baby who notes that either hammer, steel or the Big Bend tunnel itself will eventually cause his death. Then come the preliminaries for the big contest between John Henry and the steam drill. These may include wagers or financial rewards promised to John Henry, or John Henry's laying down his hammer and crying at the size of the task ahead:

"The rock was so tall and John Henry so small that he laid down his hammer and he cried."

Then comes the contest itself: "John Henry drove down fourteen feet and the steam drill only made nine." This is usually followed by verses about John Henry's death: "He laid down his hammer and he died." and these verses in turn are usually followed by passages about John Henry's woman, Polly Ann, Julia Ann, Mary Ann, or in one version, Paul E. Ann. Often these latter verses are mingled with descriptions of the funeral and reactions of other women:

"When the women in the West heard of John Henry's death, they could not stay at home...."

Where did such a tale come from? Is it based on a true event? And who is reponsible for propogating this legend, be it true or false? We will return to some of these questions when we discuss individual works on John Henry, but for the moment, we can say that the song(s) and legend of John Henry are based on real, but unidentifiable, events involving a living African American steel driver (and his shaker) that took place during the building of the Big Bend Tunnel on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad during the period 1870-1872. In spite of the fact that John Henry was African American and that he occupies a specific terrain in African American folklore, the song has spread rapidly among whites as well as African Americans, and white musicians have had a considerable role in shaping the song into its current configuration.

Oral reports of the existence of John Henry, while supporting the idea that he is an African American, have not always been uniform. Some white informants have insisted that John Henry was white. This view is no longer seriously considered, nor is the view that the song hailed from Jamaica (9), but the question of white influences on the ballad itself is less subject to dispute.(10)

Most significant is the fact that the African American folksong tradition rarely engages in the composition of lengthy narratives with such formal structure and form. Blues and blues ballads tend to be more fragmentary and imagistic rather than extended and descriptive. There are narratives in the African American tradition, of course, as any familiarity with tales and toasts reveals, but these forms may also have had a brush with the white tradition.

Further, several Scottish or Anglo-American ballads contain opening stanzas quite similar to John Henry: Mary Hamilton is one and The Cherry Tree Carol is another. The latter opens with,

Then Mary took her babe,
And set him on her knee,
Saying My dear son tell me
What this world will be.

Oh, I shall be as dead, mother, etc.

Finally, the John Henry stanza beginning "Who's going to shoe your pretty little foot..." is very similar to a line in the British ballad, The Lass of Roch Royal.

Of course, to suggest that African American folk forms have been influenced by white traditions is hardly shocking, but the John Henry tradition is a complex one and an excellent example of how such influences entwine.

At this juncture, we can now turn our attention to individual works. From a chronological perspective, what may be the earliest piece of John Henryana may also be the most valuable, the Blankenship broadside. The Blankenship broadside was owned by Mrs. C. L. Lynn of Rome, Georgia. She sent it to Guy B. Johnson, author of John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend11 when he was advertising for information about John Henry. 4 7/8 x 8 1/2", it contains 12 verses and is signed in type, "W. T. Blankenship." The name Blankenship appears several times in folksong scholarship, always in connection with the white music-making tradition, and this fact, combined with the marks of white influence which I mentioned earlier, suggest that the broadside is from white sources. No date is shown, and it has been dated variously c. 1900 (Johnson's estimate) to c. 1920s (Leach's estimate). Leach also suggests that the broadside is no more than a prettified version turned out by a Tin Pan Alley scribe, and while this remains a possibility, the broadside is (perhaps!) the earliest printed version of John Henry and would be a highspot in any collection. ($300)

John Henry was first noted in folk-song scholarship in 1909, in the Journal of American Folklore, by Louise Rand Bascom12. In her rather unsympathetic report, she was nonetheless pleased to have collected this fragment in the mountains of western North Carolina:

Johnie Henry was a hard-workin' man,
He died with his hammer in his hand.

Three years later, E. C. Perrow13 collected a longer version from the Kentucky mountains and published it in 1913, also in the Journal of American Folklore. His version contained eight stanzas but was still by no means the full ballad, although it did have most of the more significant verses. Early issues of the JAF are uncommon, but when they do turn up, they are often inexpensive. ($15 - $35).

John Lomax reported a fairly full version in a 1913 speech14, but more important was the full version collected by Josiah Combs around 1909. While it was mentioned in A Syllabus of Kentucky Folk Songs15 ($100), it wasn't printed in full until 1925, in Combs' classic work16 Folk-Songs du midi des États-Unis. The original French edition is quite difficult to find, ($150) but in 1967 it was translated into English as Folk-Songs of the Southern United States (17) ($35).

Here is where we should re-introduce John Harrington Cox's Folk-Songs of the South. As we noted above, Cox was the chief proponent of the notion that the steel-driver John Henry and the outlaw John Hardy were the same person. His confusion was based on supposed "factual" testimony of an ex-Governor of West Virginia, and the fact that John Henry and John Hardy often found themselves in each others ballads. That is, it wasn't impossible to find a stanza like this one:

John Hardy was a farmer's boy,
Sitting on his papa's knee
Saying that "the Big Bend Tunnel on the C & O road
Is bound to be the ruin of me." (18)

Intriguing, but hardly supportive of the fact that the two men were the same. Indeed, such intermingling is not unusual in ballad texts. But by virture of the esteem in which Cox was held, his 1925 book was very influential and led to endurance of the John Henry/John Hardy confusion. Ultimately, Cox himself discarded his view that the two were the same. ($85)

This brings us to the first book-length study of John Henry and the John Henry legend, Guy B. Johnson's John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend (1929) ($150-175, in dj). It is in Johnson that we first discover an authority for the now accepted "facts" of the John Henry story: that he was an African American, that he worked on the C & O's Big Bend Tunnel, that he was in a contest with the steam drill, that he died soon after the contest. Johnson was a highly respected scholar who had co-authored several works on African American song with Howard Odum(19), but a bit of controversy surrounds his work with John Henry, as Chappell points out.

According to Chappell, Johnson at first (c. mid-1920s) thought that the character of John Henry was totally mythological, and that he may have hailed from Georgia or the Carolinas. After Chappell's work began to circulate in unpublished form, prior to 1929, Johnson took up Chappell's positions for his study, John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend, without crediting Chappell with these views. Ultimately, justice was served when Chappell produced the obviously superior study, John Henry: A Folk-Lore Study in 1933.

Johnson's book is quite readable and contains a number of song texts, as well as musical examples (the latter missing from Chappell). Oddly enough for such a serious study, it has no index, and its usefulness as a reference work is somewhat compromised by this oversight.

The highspot of any John Henry collection -- the Blankenship broadside aside -- is Louis Chappell's John Henry: A Folk-Lore Study, published in wraps in 1933 in the German university center, Jena. Because it's European publication makes it difficult to locate, and because it's exhaustive treatment of the subject makes it the best single source from the early days of John Henry scholarship, it easily brings $250 in the rare book market. Chappell's work was much more thorough than Johnson's, drawing on many contemporary newspapers, scientific journals, treatises on tunneling, and reports from the construction of other tunnels, as well as on the oral and written reports from his many informants. Chappell also wrote with more conviction than Johnson about the certainty that John Henry was a real person and not just a legend. Further, he pointed out how John Henry's trade was actually tunnel work, or mining, and not at all a "railroad job," as it is so often categorized.

One scholar wrote of Chappell, "This book is an invaluable resource, a model of meticulous investigation, and a superb illustration of how to use historical evidence to untangle and document oral tradition."(20)

Two other scholarly reports should be mentioned at this point. Phillips Barry, in a review of Chappell's book (21), made the strongest case for the influence of the white music tradition on John Henry, suggesting that the ballad itself may even have been composed by whites. His reasons for this theory have been discussed above.

The most provocative theory was proposed by the scholar MacEdward Leach in 1967.(22) He speculated that the John Henry legend came from Jamaica. Using 1957 materials that he collected, he determined that a John Henry was killed in construction work on the Kingston-Port Antonio Railroad between 1894 and 1896. His primary document is a map drawn in 1894, on the back of which is scribbled the lines,

Ten pound hammer it crush me pardner
Ten pound hammer it crush me pardner
Ten pound hammer it crush me pardner
Somebody dyin' every day.

His informant told him that this was known as the John Henry Song. Leach adduces a number of possible explanations involving 1) parallel traditions, 2) John Hardy as the United States C & O legend who was replaced by the Jamaican John Henry around 1900, and 3) migration of the story from the US to Jamaica. Perhaps the best compromise was been suggested by Norm Cohen in Long Steel Rail: "The Jamaican and American stories are indeed separate, both involving men named John Henry -- a not uncommon name -- killed in construction work on a tunnel. In both the United States and Jamaica, pre-existing hammer songs were modified to suit the incident. In the United States, a complete ballad, or series of ballads, grew out of the story." (23)

Cohen's Long Steel Rail is the best concise source of John Henry material with its 10-page discussion, a transcription of two versions of John Henry, and an amazingly thorough bibliography and discography. Cohen reviews the literature, assesses the contribution of each scholar, and probes the social background of the ballad, suggesting that the song was more of a protest against society's indifference to displaced workers, than a challenge to industrialism, per se. John Henry only takes up a few pages of this 700+pp. survey of The Railroad in American Folksong, wherein over 80 songs or song groups are discussed, each with its own transcriptions, bibliography and discography. Luckily this extraordinary work is still in print in paperback, but the collector will not find it easy to locate the out-of-print hardcover ($50-$75).

Finally, there is Brett Williams' John Henry: A Bio-Bibliography (24), a comprehensive account of John Henry as legend and song, including a thorough review of the literature, a bibliography and a discography. For modern times, this is the best comprehensive source of John Henry material, and it is still in print at $45, although it's often found for less since it was once remaindered. Williams give close attention to Johnson, Chappell, Cohen, et al., discusses their arguments as well as their conclusions, and focuses on the song as well as the legend from many perspectives.

These are the main scholarly studies,(25) but there are two other groups of books that constitute an important section of any John Henry collection. One of these is folk song collections (and studies) that contain the various versions of the ballads. Both Johnson and Chappell contain many versions of the ballad and for this reason, they are the prime source for texts; only Johnson's work contains tunes as well. John Henry can also be found in standard works on African American song like Dorothy Scarborough's On the Trail of Negro Folksongs(26) and Newman Ivey White's American Negro folk-songs (27) ($250 in dust jackets). The ballad also appears in most of the standard folk song sources like the many collections compiled by the Lomaxes, one example of which is their 1934 American Ballads and Folk Songs (28).($75 in dj; $350 sgd, ltd.)

An invaluable research aid in such an American ballad quest is Malcolm Laws' Native American Balladry (29) ($75; $50 for the Revised Edition, also out-of-print.) For hundreds of ballads, Laws give an identifying number (John Henry is I1), the title (and local variations), a summary of the ballad story, a sample stanza, and most important for our purposes, a list of sources for printed texts of the ballad. Laws' work is an obvious starting point for any project such as ours.

The last group we will discuss are the many literary tributes, for both adults and children, inspired by the John Henry legend and song. The most popular and widely circulated of these books was Roark Bradford's 1931 novel, John Henry (30), illustrated with woodcuts by J. J. Lankes. Popular enough to be picked up by the Literary Guild, this book can still challenge the collector if a very fine copy in like dust jacket is insisted upon ($75). In 1939 Bradford rewrote his book as a play. (31) The cast of 50 was headlined by Paul Robeson and even featured a young Josh White as a strolling bluesman, but the script was poor, and in spite of the Jacques Wolfe score, it was a flop in Philadelpia as well as on Broadway. The play version, also published by Harper, is far scarcer than the novel and nice copies could bring $125 or so.

Interestingly enough, a Ohio University student named Eileen Burrer received a Master's Degree for her drama about John Henry, which she also based on Bradford's novel. From all reports, it is much superior to Bradford's play version.(32)

James Cloyd Bowman had already chronicled the adventures of Pecos Bill and Winabajo when he decided to tackle John Henry. His 292-page book for young adults, John Henry, The Rambling Black Ulysses, is illustrated by Roy La Grone, including two striking color plates and a similar dust jacket, and is quite difficult to obtain in dust jacket.($75) (33)

Harold Felton was another chronicler of folk heroes for young people, and his 1950 John Henry and His Hammer (34) is a bit more common than Bowman's work.($50)

The only other book for children that I'll mention in detail is the quite scarce A Man Ain't Nothin' But a Man. The Adventures of John Henry, by John Oliver Killens.(35) Juveniles were not Killens' specialty, and this book is among the most difficult to locate in the Killens canon.($125) But John Henry seems most alive in the world of children's literature, and we can't leave this survey without at least listing some other John Henry works: Irwin Shapiro's 1945 John Henry and the Double-Jointed Steam Drill36 ($50), Ezra Keats' 1965 John Henry. An American Legend (37) ($35), Adele DeLeeuw's 1966 John Henry: Steel-Drivin' Man (38) ($35), R. Conrad Stein's 1969 Steel Driving Man: The Legend of John Henry (39) ($35), and Wyatt Blassingame's 1971 John Henry and Paul Bunyan Play Baseball (40) ($30). Most encouraging, John Henry books are still being published; three current ones are Terry Small's 1993 Legend of John Henry (41), Julius Lester's 1994 John Henry (42) and Patricia A. Jensen's 1994 John Henry & His Mighty Hammer (43), all still in print.

Paul Garon


1 Cohen, Norm. 1981. Long Steel Rail. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

2 Williams, Brett. 1983. John Henry: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport: Greenwood Press.

3 Green, Archie. 1978. "John Henry Depicted" John Edwards Memorial Foundation Quarterly 14:126-43.

4 J. P. Jumper, Hinton, WV, quoted in Chappell, Louis W. 1933. John Henry: A Folk-Lore Study. Jena: Frommannsche Verlag Walter Biedermann, p. 113.

5 Raymond Homer, Jenkins, KY, quoted in Chappell, p. 132.

6 Cox, John Harrington. 1925. Folk-Songs of the South. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

7 pp. 571-582

8 Green, Archie. 1972. Only A Miner. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, pp. 329-369.

9 Leach, MacEdward. 1966. John Henry. In Folklore and Society: Essays in Honor of Benj. A. Botkin, ed. Bruce Jackson, 93-106. Hatboro: Folklore Associates.

10 A clear presentation of this position can be found in Barry, Phillips. 1934. "Reviews." Bulletin of the Folklore Society of the Northeast 8:24-26, and in Cohen, p. 70.

11 Johnson, Guy B. 1929. John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

12 Bascom, Louise Rand. 1909. "Ballads and Songs of Western North Carolina." Journal of American Folklore 22:247-49.

13 Perrow, E. C. 1913. "Songs and Rhymes from the South." Journal of American Folklore 26:123-73.

14 Published two years later as Lomax, John. 1915. "Some Types of American Folk-Song." Journal of American Folklore 28. 1-17

15 Shearin, Hubert, and Josiah Combs. 1911. A Syllabus of Kentucky Folk Songs. Lexington: Transylvania Printing Co.

16 Combs, Josiah H. 1925. Folk-Songs du midi des États-Unis. Paris: Les Presses Universitaires de France.

17 -. 1967. Folk-Songs of the Southern United States. Ed. D. K. Wilgus. Austin: AFS University of Texas Press.

18 Augustina Garborino and K. Wilson, quoted in Chappell, p. 131.

19 Odum, Howard W., and Guy B. Johnson. 1925. The Negro and his Songs. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

-. 1926. Negro Workaday Songs. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

20 Williams, Brett. 1983. John Henry: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport: Greenwood Press, p. 61.

21 Barry, op. cit.

22 Leach, op. cit.

23 Cohen, p. 73

24 Williams, op. cit.

25 Beginning in the 1960s there was a resurgence in interest in John Henry among folklorists, and I've made no attempt to cite the many articles that have appeared since that time.

26 Scarborough, Dorothy. 1925. On the Trail of Negro Folksongs. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

27 White, Newman Ivey. 1928. American Negro Folk-Songs. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

28 Lomax, John, and Alan Lomax. 1934. American Ballads and Folk Songs. New York: Macmillan.

29 Laws, G. Malcolm. 1964. Native American balladry. Revised Edition. Philadelphia: American Folklore Society.

30 Bradford, Roark. 1931. John Henry. (Novel.) Illus. J. J. Lankes. New York: Harper.

31 Bradford, Roark. 1939. John Henry. (Play.) Music by Jacques Wolfe. New York: Harper.

32 Burrer, Eileen. 1951 . John Henry: A Negro Folk Play Based on the Novel by Roark Bradford. Master's Thesis.

33 Bowman, James Cloyd. 1942. John Henry: The Rambling Black Ulysses. Illus. Roy La Grone. Chicago: Albert Whitman.

34 Felton, Harold W. 1950. John Henry and His Hammer. Illus. Aldren A. Watson. New York: Knopf.

35 Killens, John Oliver. 1975. A Man Ain't Nothin' but a Man. The Adventures of John Henry. Boston: Little, Brown.

36 Shapiro, Irwin. 1945. John Henry and the Double-Jointed Steam Drill. New York: Julian Messner.

37 Keats, Ezra. 1965. John Henry: An American Legend. New York: Pantheon.

38 DeLeeuw, Adele. 1966. John Henry: Steel-Drivin' Man. Champaign: Garrard.

39 Stein, R. Conrad. 1969. Steel Driving Man: The Legend of John Henry. Chicago: Children's Press.

40 Blassingame, Wyatt. 1971. John Henry and Paul Bunyan Play Baseball. Champaign: Garrard.

41 Small, Terry. 1994. Legend of John Henry. Juvenile. New York: Doubleday.

42 Lester, Julius. 1994. John Henry. Illus. Jerry Pinckney. New York: Dial.

43 Jensen, Patricia A. 1993. John Henry & His Mighty Hammer. Juvenile. Illus. Roseanne Litzinger. First-Start Tall Tale Series. Mahwah, NJ: Troll Communications L.L.C.

This article first appeared in AB Bookman's Weekly, February 17, 1998, and is Copyright © 1998 Paul Garon. No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without the express written permission of the author. It is presented here by permission of Paul Garon. Thank you very much.

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