John Henry

Traditional, c. 1870s

This song has been called America's most famous ballad—ballads are songs that tell a story. What story is this ballad telling? What kind of man is John Henry? What was his character like? Tell who the real John Henry was after students interpret his character from the song.

Where in the song is exaggeration used? What role does exaggeration play in the story?

What is the underlying story behind this song? Mechanization's threat to labor, pride of workmanship, ruthless corporate growth of the railroad.

Why do you think the ballad of John Henry came to be sung again and again in both white and African American folk traditions? Why did workers identify with John Henry?

What other laborers and common people have become folk heroes? Casey Jones, Joe Magarac (steel), cowboys, Paul Bunyan, Rosie the Riveter, Mike Fink (flatboat). What function have these folk heroes served?

Do we have folk heroes today? Who tends to fill this role in our culture? Which media characters help today's workers deal with their jobs?


"John Henry" performed by Lesley Riddle on Close to Home: Old Time Music from Mike Seeger's Collection, 1952–1967, Smithsonian Folkways [40097], © 1997. Available on iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

Lesley Riddle (1905–80), the performer on this recording, grew up in Kingsport, Tennessee. Although never characterized as a professional musician, Riddle worked closely with the Carter Family, accompanying them on song collecting trips throughout the southeast. His association with other notables, such as Mike Seeger, has earned him a prominent position in the history of folk and country music.

View the lyrics and music for "John Henry."

JOhn Henry postage stamp
John Henry stamp, first issued July 11, 1996.

The figure of John Henry was said to have been derived from a real historical figure, an African American "steel driver" removing rock, pounding spikes, and laying track on the C&O line in West Virginia. By the time the Transcontinental Railroad was finished, his skill at pounding steel had spread far and wide. According to legend, he used two twenty-pound hammers at a time—one in each hand.

This folk song vividly captures the tension between man and machine, which was a real economic and social issue in the rapidly industrializing United States. The song's melodic contour features "blue notes" and syncopation, suggesting the close relationship between Black and white musical styles. In fact, "John Henry" has been equally popular among Black and white folk musicians.

Compare this song to:

"Drill, Ye Tarriers, Drill" (this unit)

"Sixteen Tons" (Unit 8)

"Nine to Five" (Unit 9).

Design a series of stamps honoring America's other working folk heroes.

Story Plot

Write a single event in each block in the order it occurs. Add as many blocks as needed to include the whole story