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Resources About John Henry

There are many works about John Henry's life, the story that grew around him, and the music. Many of the following works were used for this project.

Web resources
Print resources

Web Resources

John Henry Park in Talcott, West Virginia
A wealth of information about John Henry and the Park that was established in his honor. (An excellent source of information for teachers).

John Henry Wikipedia
Another great source of information

John Henry and the Inky-Poo
Visit a site dedicated to the 1946 Puppetoon featuring John Henry’s battle with the steel driving machine called the Inky-Poo. Site offers photographs, an opportunity to download movie samples ad a sound file of the narration.

The Mudcat Cafe
URL: is a forum dedicated to the origins of John Henry. Read or post.

Featured Folk Artist John Cephas
Hear Cephas singing John Henry or check out the site’s background on the legend and the song.

Print Resources

Scott Nelson. "Who Was John Henry? Railroad Construction, Southern Folklore, and the Birth of Roch and Roll." _Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas_ Vol. 2. No. 2 Summer 2005 page 53-79.

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

A little hard to find, this book should be available at most major libraries. Johnson, a faculty member at the Institute for Research in Social Science at UNC, made the first concerted attempt to track down the origins of the legend, the tradition and the songs.

John Henry: A Bio-Bibliography by Brett Williams. (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983).

Brett explores the question of Henry's authenticity, discusses the John Henry tradition in song and story and offers an appraisal of his heroic appeal and role in African-American culture. The book contains extensive bibliographies of printed, visual and recorded John Henry materials.

A Treasury of American Folklore, B. A. Botkin, ed. (New York: Crown Publishers, 1944)

Pages 230-240 discuss the role of John Henry as a folk hero and his status in the African-American community during the early part of this century. The book discusses some of the controversy surrounding his authenticity and provides lyrics to 28 verses of one song recounting his life beginning at birth.

A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore by Harold Courlander (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc.).

On pages 383-392, Courlander discusses the origin of the John Henry epics and how they reflect the historical struggle of man and machine. Courlander discusses the legend of John Henry's birth and provides a sample from a Jamaican John Henry work song.

Heroes, Outlaws & Funny Fellows of American Popular Tales by Olive Beaupre Miller (New York: Cooper Square Publishers, Inc., 1973)

Pages 147-157 - "John Henry's Contest With the Big Steam Drill" - recounts the legendary story in a simple, straightforward narrative and describes how it came to be a popular work song for steel drivers.

Great American Folklore, Kemp P. Battley, ed. (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1986.

"John Henry, the Steel-Drivin' Man" (pages 134-140) offers an alternative narrative of the John Henry versus machine contest legend.

American Folklore by Richard M. Dorson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959).

Dorson discusses the John Henry legend in the context of African-American songs and epics current in the last decades of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries. The book also discusses the contrasts between the Johnny Appleseed, John Henry and Casey Jones legends.

Folk-Songs of the South, John Harrington Cox, ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1925).

Pages 175-188 discuss the historical background on John Hardy, identified by some as the source o the John Henry tradition. The book also provides nine alternative ballads collected during the early decades of this century from the Kentucky-West Virginia area.

Negro Workaday Songs by Howard W. Odum and Guy B. Johnson (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1926).

Pages 221-240 discuss variations and consistencies in the John Henry story and songs in the Southern U.S. early in the century. The authors provide 11 variations in lyrics plus four work song variations.

Negro Folk Music, USA by Harold Courlander (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963).

Courlander discusses (pages 110-115) the role of John Henry songs in southern railroad and labor camps and provides lyrics from a John Henry variant recorded in Alabama. A later section also discusses the impact of the ballad on the development of the Blues.

Southern Folk Ballads, W. K. McNeil, ed. (Little Rock, AR: August House, 1987).

McNeil provides a 10-verse variation of the song with a brief discussion of its origins and performances by Blues singers.

Here's Audacity! American Legendary Heroes by Frank Shay (New York: The Macaulay Co., 1930).

A straightforward, narrative retelling of the John Henry legend (pages 245-254).

The Hurricane's Children by Carl Carmer (New York: Farar & Rinehart, 1937).

A narrative recounting of a Georgia version of the John Henry tradition.

Tall Tale America: A Legendary History of our Humerous Heroes by Walter Blair (New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1944)

Pages 203-219 contain a light-hearted retelling of John Henry's remarkable youth and life.

Bibliography of American Folklore: Index to Materials in Books on Select American Folk Characters by Marjorie Crammer.

This index is arranged alphabetically bythe character's last name with call numbers for relevant books. The list was compiled for the Prince George's County Memorial Library System in Hyattsville, MD.

Classroom Teaching Guide by The Smithsonian Institution Folklife Program.

This manual provides a general introduction to folklore and folklife. Certain articles contained in the package may be used in a basic activity-oriented approach to the study of folklore beginning at the fourth grade level.

Classroom Teaching Guide by Fresno City Unified School District, California.

This instructional materials packet is designed for use in junior high school language arts classes and introduces students to North American folklore. Selected readings include real folk heroes such as John Henry and Davy Crockett as well as Indian tales, imaginary folk heroes, Black folk stories and tales of Washington Irving. Each reading is accompanied by several exercises which integrate content analysis with skill development in recognizing and using parts of speech, building vocabulary and other language skills.

John Henry and Mr. Goldberg: The Relationship between Blacks and Jews by Jack Nusan Porter. (Journal of Ethnic Studies, v. 7, n. 3, p. 73-86 Fall 1979).

Porter explores folk tales, jokes, and other forms of folk culture to explore relationships between Blacks and Jews and to trace changes in this relationship.

John Henry by Julius Lester (pictures by Jerry Pinkney) (New York: Dial Books, 1994).

Retells the life of the legendary African-American hero who raced against a steam drill to cut through a mountain in a contemporary manner.

Plays of Black Americans: Episodes From the Black Experience in America, Sylvia E. Kamerman, ed. (Boston:Plays, Inc., 1994)

A collection of plays reflecting the Black experience in America. Contains 11 childrens plays by African-American authors including John Henry by Barbara Winther.

African-American Folktales for Young Readers, collected and edited by Richard Alan Young and Judy Dockrey Young.

A collection of folktales from the African-American oral tradition, presented as they have been told by professional Black storytellers from Rhode Island to Oklahoma.

A Natural Man: The True Story of John Henry, by Steve Sanfield (illustrated by Peter Thornton). (Boston: D.R. Godine, 1986)

Retells the life of the legendary steel driver of early railroad days who challenged the steam hammer to a steel-driving contest. Intended for a juvenile audience.

A Man Ain't Nothin' But a Man: the Adventures of John Henry, by John Oliver Killens.1st ed. (Boston : Little, Brown, 1975)

The adventures of John Henry compiled by an African-American author.

John Henry; A Folk-Lore Study, by Louis W. Chappell (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1968)

This reprint of the 1933 edition contains 45 pages of popular songs and ballads (without the music).

John Henry, An American Legend, by Ezra Jack Keats. (New York : Pantheon Books, 1965).

Describes the life of the legendary steel-driving man who was born with and who died with a hammer in his hand.

John Henry and The Double Jointed Steam-Drill, by Irwin Shapiro, (drawings by James Daugherty) (New York : J. Messner, 1945)

John Henry, The Rambling Black Ulysses, by James Cloyd Bowman (illustrated by Roy La Grone) (Chicago, Ill.: A. Whitman & Company, 1942).

Includes songs with music.


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