Paul Bunyan and John Henry

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

John Henry (John Carson)

Reading time: 5 minutes.

From the NPR website: "The 11-stanza "John Henry Blues" sung by Georgia musician Fiddlin' John Carson in March 1924 marks the song's earliest appearance on a recording." This is a very scratchy recording, but you can hear the words quite clearly! In this version, you can see how the mountain is being used as a kind of sacred place where John Henry "goes up" like Moses, but feels overwhelmed by the size of that mountain, as if it were a symbol of all the weight of oppression and struggle that he had to bear. You will also meet some of John Henry's women: his wife Polly Ann, along with the "woman in blue."

AUDIO VERSION at the NPR website; it is the top item in the list of music files on the left.

John Henry was a very small boy,
Fell on his mammy's knee;
Picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel,
"Lord, a hammer'll be the death of me,
Lord, a hammer'll be the death of me."

John Henry went upon the mountain,
Come down on the side;
The mountain so tall, John Henry was so small,
Lord, he lay down his hammer and he cried, "Oh, Lord,"
He lay down his hammer and he cried.

John Henry was on the right hand,
But that steam drill was on the left;
"Before your steam drill beats me down,
Hammer my fool self to death,
Lord, I'll hammer my fool self to death."

The captain says to John Henry,
"Believe my tunnel's fallin' in."
"Captain, you needn't not to worry,
Just my hammer hawsing in the wind,
Just my hammer hawsing in the wind."

"Look away over yonder, captain,
You can't see like me."
He hollered out in a low, lonesome cry,
"This hammer'll be the death of me,
Lord, this hammer'll be the death of me."

John Henry told his captain,
"Captain, you go to town,
Bring John back a twelve-pound hammer,
And he'll whup your steam drill down,
[And] he'll whup your steam drill down."

For the man that invented that steam drill
Thought he was mighty fine;
John Henry sunk a fo'teen foot,
The steam drill only made nine,
The steam drill only made nine.

John Henry told his shaker,
"Shaker, you better pray;
For if I miss this six-foot steel,
Tomorrow'll be your buryin' day,
An' tomorrow'll be your buryin' day."

John Henry told his lovin' little woman,
"Sick and I want to go to bed;
Fix me a place to lay down, child,
Got a rollin' in my head,
Got a rollin' in my head."

John Henry had a lovely little woman,
Called her Polly Ann;
John Henry got sick and he had to go home,
But Polly broke steel like a man,
Polly broke steel like a man.

John Henry had another little woman,
The dress she wore was blue;
She went down the track and she never looked back,
"John Henry, I've been true to you."

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

  • what does John Henry say to his mother when he is little?
  • what does John Henry say when he meets the mountain?
  • what are the names of John Henry's women in this version? what does the song say about them?

Source: "John Henry Blues," performed by Fiddlin' John Carson. Transcribed by Norm Cohen in Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000). 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