Paul Bunyan and John Henry

Week 14: American Folklore - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

John Henry (John Cephas)

Reading time: 5 minutes.

This version of the John Henry song sung by John Cephas is a good introduction to some of the main features of the legend: it includes information about John Henry's birth; dialogue back and forth between John Henry and his "captain" about the contest with the steam-drill; and an account of John Henry's death and burial. Pay attention to the role of the mountain: in many of the songs, the mountain becomes an intense symbol at the very center of the whole drama. In this case John Henry's efforts are so awesome that it seems the whole mountain is about to collapse.

John Henry was a little boy,
'Bigger than the palm of your hand,
'Time that boy, he was nine years old
Driving spikes like a man
Driving spikes like a man.
John Henry was a little boy,
Sitting on his mammy's knee,
He picked up a hammer and a little bit of steel:
"Hammer's gonna be the death of me,
Hammer's gonna be the death of me."

John Henry said to the captain, yeah,
"Man, you ought to see me swing
Love to hear the cold steel ring,
Love to hear the cold steel ring."

John Henry said to the captain, yeah,
"A man ain't nothing but a man,
But before I let the steam drill beat me down,
I'm gonna die with this hammer in my hand,
Die with this hammer in my hand."

Captain said to John Henry, yeah,
"This mountain is caving in,"
John Henry said, "Oh captain, yeah,
'Just my hammer sucking wind,
'Just my hammer sucking wind."

John Henry went to that tunnel to drive,
Steam drill was by his side,
He beat that steam drill three inches and down,
He laid down his hammer, Lord, he died,
Laid down a hammer, Lord, he died.

They took John Henry to the graveyard,
Buried him six feet in the sand,
'Time a locomotive passed by,
Says, "There lies a steel driving man,
There lies a steel driving man.
There lies a steel driving man.
There lies a steel driving man."

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • when did John Henry start driving steel?
  • what did John Henry say to his captain?
  • where did they bury John Henry?

Source: "John Henry" lyrics, included in John Cephas, Piedmont Blues Musician: Music Sample. Weblink.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM