Paul Bunyan and John Henry

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

John Henry (sung by Ollie Gilbert, Arkansas 1970)

Reading time: 3 minutes.

This is another one of the songs collected by Max Hunter; this time, the recording comes from Mountain View, Arkansas on March 12, 1970, and the singer is Ollie Gilbert, who hesitates about the words at some moments, but you can also see which parts of the song come to her without a bit of hesitation.


John Henry was a little bitty boy
Set on his Daddy's knee
He picked up a hammer an' a little piece o' steel
Sayin' this 'll be th death of me Lord, Lord
This will be th death of me

John Henry said, to his Captain
Er' you going to town
Bring me back, nine pound hammer
I'm goin' t' drive th steel on down, down, down
Gonna drive th steel on down

They took John Henry to th mountin'
Th mountin' was so high
Th mountin' was tall, John Henry is small
Lay down his hammer an' he died Lord, Lord
Lay down his hammer an' he cried

John Henry told th Captin'
A man ain't nothin' but a man
An' before I'll let your drill beat me
I'll die with my hammer in my hand, Lord, Lord
Die with my hammer in my hand

John Henry said to th Captin'
Boy, you'd better pray
For if I miss with my nine pound hammer
Tomorrow 'll be your buryin' day Lord, Lord
Tomorrow 'll be your buryin' day

They took John Henry to a tunnell
An' buried him in th sand
An' ever woman that come down that road
Say, there lay a steel drivin' man, Lord, Lord
There lay a steel drivin' man

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

  • what did John Henry say to his father?
  • what did he say to his captain?
  • where is John Henry buried? what do the women say about him when they pass by?

Source: John Henry, sung by Ollie Gilbert (1970). 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