Paul Bunyan and John Henry

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

John Henry (Leadbelly)

Reading time: 3 minutes.

This recording of "John Henry" by Leadbelly has a long spoken introduction, which is not transcribed here - it's great stuff! Leadbelly, born Huddie Ledbetter in 1885 in Louisiana, was an incredible musician. And, in his own words, he was "the world's greatest cotton picker, railroad track liner, lover, and drinker as well as guitar player." You will recognize most of the elements in this version of the song (including the "who's gonna shoe your little feet?" dialogue) - but this time John Henry is not buried near the railroad line. Instead, he's buried at the White House!

John Henry was a newborn baby
Sitting down on his mama's knee.
Say "that Big Bend Tunnel on that Savannah Road.
It is going to be the death of me, Lord, Lord, it is gonna be the death of me." (2x)

John Henry had two women.
One was named Mary Magdalene.
She would go out on the job and she would sing,
"Can you hear John Henry's hammer ring, Lord, Lord, can you hear John Henry's hammer ring?" (2x)

John Henry had another little woman,
Her name was sweet Polly Ann.
John Henry taken sick, boy, and he had to go to bed.
Polly Ann drove steel like a man, Lord, Lord, Polly Ann drove steel like a man. (2x)

"John Henry was sick, he called Polly Ann to his bedside, and this is what he asked her":
Baby, who's gonna shoe your little feet?
Baby, who's gonna glove your hand?
Tell me, who's going to kiss your sweet little lips?
Tell me, who's gonna be your man, Lord, Lord, who's gonna be your man? (2x)

"This is what she told him":
My papa's gonna shoe my little feet,
My mama's gonna glove my hand.
My sister's gonna kiss my sweet little lips,
And you know I don't need no man, Lord, Lord, you know I don't need no man. (2x)

Then they take John Henry to the White House,
And they bury him in the sand,
And every locomotive comes a-rollin' by sayin',
"There lie that steel-drivin' man, Lord, Lord, there lie that steel-drivin' man." (2x)

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

  • what was Mary Magdalene like?
  • what was Polly Ann like? what did John Henry ask her as he was dying?
  • where was John Henry buried?

Source: Leadbelly, "John Henry." From Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, reissue of Negro Folk Songs for Young People, Folkways 7533, 1960, with additional tracks recorded by Moses Asch in New York, 1941-1948. 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