Education: Heritage Discovery Center

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Primary source: Folk song

The Ballad of John Henry

John Henry

Read the story of John Henry.

Song Lyrics

John Henry

(Traditional)

When John Henry was a little baby,
Just a sittn' on his mammy's knee,
Said, "The Big Bend Tunnel on that C&O Road
Gonna be the death of me, Lord God
Going to be the death of me."

Well John Henry said to the Captain,
I'm gonna take a little trip downtown
Get me a thirty pound hammer with that nine foot handle
I'll beat your steam drill down, Lord God
I'll beat your steam drill down.

Well John Henry hammered on that mountain
Till his hammer was striking fire
And the very last words that I heard that boy say was
Cool drink of water 'for I die, Lord God
Cool drink of water 'for I die.

Well they carried him down to the graveyard
And they buried him in the sand
And every locomotive came a roarin' on by
They cried out, "There lies a steel drivin' man, Lord God
There lies a steel drivin' man."

Well there's some say he came from Texas
There's some say he came from Maine
Well I don't give a damn where that poor boy was from
You know that, he was a steel drivin' man, Lord God
John Henry was a steel drivin' man.

Well when John Henry was a little baby,
Just a sittn' on his mammy's knee,
Said, "The Big Bend Tunnel on that C&O Road
Gonna be the death of me, Lord God
Going to be the death of me."

Recordings

Modern recording of the version above

Version with lyrics above in a modern recording from Roger McGuinn's FolkDen:

Recordings from the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress

Performances from The John and Ruby Lomax 1939 Southern States Recording Trip:

Performances from Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections, 1937-1942:

Discussion

  • What story is this song telling? What kind of man was John Henry? What was his character like? Where in the song is exaggeration used?
  • What is the "big idea" story behind this song?
  • Why do you think the story of John Henry came to be sung again and again by both white and African American workers? Why did workers identify with John Henry’s life and death?
  • What other laborers and common people have become folk heroes? What imaginary workers have people invented? What function have these folk heroes served for people?
  • Do you think we have folk heroes today? Which media characters help today’s workers deal with their problems on the job?

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