Please join our John Henry Yahoo discussion group.
Read Dr. Scott Reynolds Nelson's new book John Henry: the Untold Story of an American Legend now.
You can also read a Q&A Session with Dr. Nelson and a book review on the College of William and Mary's News Site.
Dr. Garst provides his perspective on ideas presented in Dr. Nelson's new book. Read Dr. Garst's analysis here.
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Information about John Henry
- Researchers believe that John Henry was born a slave in the
1840's or 1850's. It is important to remember that no one
knows for sure if John Henry existed. That is one of the things
that makes the legend so intriguing.
- According to the legend he grew to stand 6 feet tall, 200
pounds - a giant in that day.
From NPR's Present at the Creation - John Henry:
Though the story of John Henry sounds like the quintessential tall tale, it is certainly based, at least in part, on historical circumstance. There are disputes as to where the legend originates. Some place John Henry in West Virginia, while recent research suggests Alabama. Still, all share a similar back-story.
- Read John Henry song lyrics.
In order to construct the railroads, companies hired thousands of men to smooth out terrain and cut through obstacles that stood in the way of the proposed tracks. One such chore that figures heavily into some of the earliest John Henry ballads is the blasting of the Big Bend Tunnel -- more than a mile straight through a mountain in West Virginia.
Steel-drivin' men like John Henry used large hammers and stakes to pound holes into the rock, which were then filled with explosives that would blast a cavity deeper and deeper into the mountain. In the folk ballads, the central event took place under such conditions. Eager to reduce costs and speed up progress, some tunnel engineers were using steam drills to power their way into the rock. According to some accounts, on hearing of the machine, John Henry challenged the steam drill to a contest. He won, but died of exhaustion, his life cut short by his own superhuman effort.
- Listen to songs about John Henry.