Study Guide

John Henry

John Henry Introduction

In a Nutshell

Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, and John Henry are all legendary figures with larger than life exploits. But there's one big difference between them: John Henry may have been real. There's plenty of evidence to suggest that the steel-driving railroad man actually lived and that he did die in a triumphant race against a machine.

Unfortunately, the details are a bit sketchy. Some say Henry was a former slave; others say he was a free Black from New Jersey (we can't imagine why he left). Some believe he raced a steam drill in Virginia; others argue that the contest occurred in Alabama. Some place the events in 1870; others argue that the race occurred during the 1880s.

So, what's the truth? If John Henry was real, exactly who was he, and where and when did he take on a machine? And whether real or fictitious, why would people care enough to turn his deadly contest into a song?

About the Song

ArtistGuthrie, Woody
Year1944–1945
LabelSmithsonian Folkways
Writer(s)Unknown (Traditional)
Producer(s)Moses Asch
Musician(s)Woody Guthrie (vocals, guitar), Cisco Houston (vocals, guitar)

Music Video

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Influences on Guthrie, Woody

The Carter Family
Will Rogers
Jimmie Rodgers
The Little Red Songbook

Influenced by Guthrie, Woody

Bob Dylan
Bruce Springsteen
Donovan
Pete Seeger
Ramblin Jack Elliot
Dan Bern
Billy Bragg
Ani DiFranco
Wilco
The Klezmatics
Arlo Guthrie

John Henry Resources

Books

Scott Reynolds Nelson, Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend (2008)
William and Mary professor Nelson hunts for the real story behind the legend in this historical treasure hunt. Authoritative and entertaining, the book manages to tell a great story while also teaching a thing or two about the Reconstruction Era.

Stephen Amrbose, Nothing Like It in the World (2000)
If you're interested in the larger story of the railroad lying behind the John Henry legend, you might like Ambrose's popular history. The scholar loves a grand story and at times gets lost in the drama, but the book is well researched, and Ambrose knows how to tell a tale.

Images

Palmer Hayden's John Henry Series
Palmer Hayden, an African-American artist, was inspired by the song his father sang to him as a child, and produced this 12-painting series that's part of the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles.

John Henry Statue
The statue of the steel driver outside Talcott, West Virginia.

Movies & TV

Tall Tales & Legends: John Henry (1987)
This 1980s series included an episode on John Henry. Danny Glover stars, and Shelley Duvall hosts. The film has an after-school special feel—a bit cheesy—but it's still worth watching.

Transcontinental Railroad (2003)
This episode of PBS's American Experience takes an interesting and entertaining look at the transcontinental railroad. The southern railroads on which John Henry may have worked and died aren't central to the story, but the film illustrates the nature and scale of the work undertaken by railroad crews.

Websites

The Legend of John Henry
Some grad students at the University of North Carolina have put together an interesting website dedicated to the legend of John Henry. The site provides information, lyrics, and helpful links.

Lawrence Downes, "John Henry Days," The New York Times (2008)
This page from The New York Times' Sunday Book Review offers a great discussion of Scott Reynolds Nelson's book on John Henry.

Video & Audio

Woody Guthrie, "John Henry"
Here's a great recording from the legendary folk singer.

Tennessee Ernie Ford, "John Henry"
The popular country singer recorded the song in 1956.

Mississippi Fred McDowell, "John Henry"
The legendary performer gives the song a blues arrangement.

Bruce Springsteen, "John Henry"
The Boss performs a bluegrassy rendition of the song.

The Smothers Brothers, "John Henry"
Tom and Dick offer their irreverent rendition of the classic folk song.