Paul Bunyan and John Henry

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


John Henry (Angola State Penitentiary, Louisiana 1959)

Reading time: 3 minutes.

From the iBiblio website: "This version was submitted by Sean, from Dublin, Ireland. It was recorded in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola, LA, by Dr. Harry Oster, 1959 and is available on Prison Worksongs, Arhoolie 448." Notice how this song starts off with the relationship between John Henry and Polly Ann, including some lines that you may recognize from one of Child's ballad, "Who Will Shoe Your Feet?" The reference to money in this song is not about a bet on the race with the steam-drill; in fact, the race with the steam-drill is not even mentioned! Instead, the reference to money is about a woman sweet-talking her man when he's got cash in hand, and talking bad behind his back.

1. John Henry had a little woman,
and they called her Polly Ann,
Well who gonna glove her pretty little feet,
Mama, I'm gonna glove yo hand,
Yea I'm gonna glove yo hand.

2. John Henry told his captain,
Says "Captain when you go to town,
Bring me back a twelve pound hammer,
So I can drive your steel on down.
Lawd, Lawd, I can drive your steel on down."

3. John Henry said to his captain,
"Oh Captain - a man ain't nothin but a man,
Just before I die with the hammer in my hand,
Lawd, Lawd, I'll die with the hammer in my hand."

4. It's "Big black nigger" when I'm gone,
And it's "Honey, darlin' when I'm home,
But as soon as I get a twenty dollar bill,
It's "Baby, where you been so long?"
Lawd, Lawd, it's "Baby, where you been so long?"

5. John Henry says to his mother,
Says "A man ain't nothin but a man,
Before I let this steam beat me down,
Lawd, I'll die with this hammer in my hand,
Lawd, Lawd, I'll die with this hammer in my hand."

6. John Henry, Oh John Henry,
John Henry was taken sick,
And Polly drove steel like a man,
Lawd, Lawd, and Polly drove steel like a man.

7. John Henry said to his father,
"If there's one more train I want to ride,
That's the Santa Fe, and the Southern Pacific,
On that I.C. Railroad line,
On that I.C. Railroad line,
Oh Lawd, that I.C. Railroad line."


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

  • how does John Henry's woman treat him when he is around?
  • how did she act behind his back?
  • what does John Henry tell his father that he wants to do?

Source: Recorded in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola, LA, by Dr. Harry Oster, 1959. 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