Paul Bunyan and John Henry

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

Death of John Henry (Uncle Dave Macon)

Reading time: 4 minutes.

From the iBiblio website: "The Grand Ole Opry's first star, Uncle Dave Macon, tells John Henry's story in this 1926 recording that opens with the steel driver's demise. As Macon sings "Death of John Henry" and plays the banjo, he is backed by guitarist Sam McGee." One new feature of this song is that it starts out with a kind of moralizing preamble right at the beginning of the song.

Listen in every heart there burns a flame
For the love of glory or the dread of shame
But oh how happy we would be if we understood
There's no safety but in doing good

People out west heard of John Henry's death
Couldn't hardly stay in bed
Monday morning on the east bound train
Going where John Henry's dead
Going where John Henry's dead

They carried John Henry to the graveyard
They looked at him good and long
The very last words his wife said to him
My husband he's dead and gone
My husband he's dead and gone

John Henry's wife wore a brand new dress
It was all trimmed in blue
The very last words she said to him
Honey I been good to you
Honey I been good to you

John Henry told the Shaker
Lord shake while I sing
Pulling a hammer from my shoulder
Bound to hear her when she rings
Bound to hear her when she rings

John Henry told his captain
I am a Tennessee man
Before I would see that steam drill beat me down
Die with a hammer in my hand
Die with a hammer in my hand

John Henry hammered in the mountain
Till the hammer caught on fire
Very last words I heard him say
Cool drink of water before I die
Cool drink of water before I die

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

  • what were the last words John Henry's wife spoke to him?
  • what happened to John Henry's hammer?
  • what were John Henry's last words?

Source: "The Death of John Henry" (arranged by Ralph Stanley, T Bone Burnett, Larry Ehrlich, Bob Neuwirth; traditional). 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