Created by UNC students, this website hosted by ibiblio provides an introduction to the legend of John Henry using resources from the Southern Folklife Collection. You can listen to music inspired by the folk hero, read news about John Henry in academic scholarship, and explore extra materials for more learning if you’re interested.
John Henry, a hero in Southern folklore, is known to be a formerly-enslaved man born in the mid-19th century who became a laborer for the railroads after the Civil War. As the story goes, John Henry was challenged to race against a steam drill to test his strength as a steel-driver; he heroically defeats the machine, but dies from overexertion shortly after completing the challenge. The legend originated in oral tradition around the 1870s and evolved into numerous versions as it spread across the country. You can read different versions of the legend here!
The real John Henry is thought to have been born in either North Carolina or Virginia and was a singer, banjo player, and dedicated laborer. During the Reconstruction era, John Henry was hired by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway to hammer holes into rocks and was known as the most powerful man to work the rails, hammering 10 to 20 feet of rails every day (head to this page on the site to learn more about the steel-driving process). He died shortly after racing against a steam drill from either exhaustion or a stroke.
An inspiration for laborers for many generations, John Henry is a symbol of strength and perseverance who has been embraced by countless groups as a working-class hero. You can listen to popular songs inspired by the folklore here, and make sure to read through the analysis if you want to learn more about the musicians and populations who were moved by John Henry’s story!
If you like the legend of John Henry and are looking for more folk stories, head over to the folklore tag to browse similar items in the ibiblio catalog.