“John Henry”

Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1909 (JAFL)
Keywords: train work death technology railroading worker
Found in: US(Ap,MA,MW,SE,So)


The boss of a railroad crew has brought in a steam drill. John Henry, the best driver in the gang, vows he will never be outclassed by the machine. In a contest between the two, Henry is victorious (in most versions), but dies of the exertion


The popularity of this song is shown by its influence on other songs: Not only is John Henry's hammer mentioned in "Take this Hammer" and relatives, but it also inspired W. C. Handy's "John Henry Blues." Quite a record for a song which came into existence only well into the railroad age.

The bibliography of this song is huge, and no attempt is made to reproduce it here. Extensive attempts have been made to locate the historical John Henry; the latest, by John Garst, appears finally to be adding up to a sufficient case. But we may never have a "last word." - RBW

Same tune

Cross references



  1. Laws I1, "John Henry"
  2. Cohen-LSRail, pp. 61-89, "John Henry" (2 texts plus many excerpts and a copy of the Blankenship broadside, 2 tunes)
  3. BrownII 280, "John Henry" (2 texts plus 5 fragments, 1 excerpt, and mention of 1 more, but only the "A" text, plus probably the "C" fragment, is this song; the fragments are of "Take This Hammer," "Swannanoah Tunnel," etc.)
  4. Chappell-FSRA 103, "John Henry" (1 short text, which despite the title appears to have two "John Hardy" verses and only one of "John Henry")
  5. Leach, pp. 756-759, "John Henry" (2 texts)
  6. Friedman, p. 383, "John Henry" (6 texts, but only three are true versions of "John Henry"; the rest appear to be variants of "Take this Hammer")
  7. PBB 109, "John Henry" (1 text)
  8. McNeil-SFB1, pp. 150-153, "John Henry" (1 text, 1 tune)
  9. Sandburg, pp. 24-25, "John Henry" (1 text, 1 tune)
  10. Combs/Wilgus 81, pp. 164-165, "John Henry (The Steel-Driving Man)" (1 text)
  11. Lomax-FSUSA 74, "John Henry" (2 texts, 2 tunes)
  12. Lomax-FSNA 298, "John Henry-I"; 299, "John Henry-II" (2 texts, 2 tunes, the first containing a large portion of "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me/Been All Around This World" or a relative)
  13. Lomax-ABFS, pp. 3-10, "John Henry" (2 texts, 1 tune)
  14. Ritchie-SingFam, pp. 240-241, "[John Henry]" (1 text, 1 tune)
  15. Asch/Dunson/Raim, p. 52 "Gonna Die With My Hammer In My Hand (John Henry)" (1 text, 1 tune)
  16. Hodgart, p. 243, "John Henry" (1 text)
  17. Arnett, p. 111, "John Henry" (1 text, 1 tune)
  18. Botkin-SoFolklr, p. 748, "The Death of John Henry" (1 text, 1 tune -- a strange version, sung, and partly spoken, by Dave Macon. It starts with the death and funeral, then goes back to the familiar story)
  19. Courlander-NFM, pp. 111-115, "(John Henry)" (1 text); pp. 280-285, "John Henry" (3 tunes, partial texts); also pp. 137-138, "(John Henry)" (1 text, with a fragment of the plot of "John Henry" but many lyrics from "Take This Hammer")
  20. JHCox 35, "John Hardy" (9 text, some of John Henry, some of John Hardy, some mixed: A is John Hardy with a John Henry second verse, B, C, and G are John Hardy with a John Henry opening verse, D, F, and I are pure John Hardy, E is John Hardy with material from John Henry and a "Pretty Little Foot" song, H is John Henry)
  21. Darling-NAS, pp. 230-234, "John Henry" (3 texts plus a text of "Take This Hammer")
  22. PSeeger-AFB, p. 82, "John Henry" (1 text, 1 tune)
  23. Greenway-AFP, p. 107, "John Henry" (1 text)
  24. Silber-FSWB, p. 123, "John Henry" (1 text)
  26. Roud #790
  27. BI, LI01