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John Henry Legend - Ballad of John Henry

Updated on April 29, 2013

The Legend of John Henry

This site is about all things concerning the legend of John Henry. There is little doubt that there exists two John Henrys. One is the real man, and there were several slaves which bore his name which could have been the historical John Henry. However, the bigger than life folk tale and the legends surrounding the man make his counterpart, John Henry, come alive through ballads, stories, play, songs and films. This lens will be packed with many links the reader should find interesting!

John Henry Legend

The truth about John Henry as the strongest man alive is obscured by time and myth, but one legend has it that he was a slave born in Missouri in the 1840s and fought his notable battle with the steam hammer along the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway in Talcott, West Virginia.

John Henry Legend
John Henry Legend

John Henry Legend

Ballad of John Henry


 John Henry was a railroad man,
 He worked from six 'till five,
"Raise 'em up bullies and let 'em drop down,
I'll beat you to the bottom or die."

 John Henry said to his captain:
 "You are nothing but a common man,
Before that steam drill shall beat me down,
I'll die with my hammer in my hand."

 John Henry said to the Shakers:
 "You must listen to my call,
Before that steam drill shall beat me down,
I'll jar these mountains till they fall."

 John Henry's captain said to him:
 "I believe these mountains are caving in."
John Henry said to his captain: "Oh, Lord!"
"That's my hammer you hear in the wind."

 John Henry he said to his captain:
 "Your money is getting mighty slim,
When I hammer through this old mountain,
Oh Captain will you walk in?"

 John Henry's captain came to him
 With fifty dollars in his hand,
He laid his hand on his shoulder and said:
"This belongs to a steel driving man."

 John Henry was hammering on the right side,
 The big steam drill on the left,
Before that steam drill could beat him down,
He hammered his fool self to death.

 They carried John Henry to the mountains,
 From his shoulder his hammer would ring,
She caught on fire by a little blue blaze
I believe these old mountains are caving in.

 John Henry was lying on his death bed,
 He turned over on his side,
And these were the last words John Henry said
"Bring me a cool drink of water before I die."

 John Henry had a little woman,
 Her name was Pollie Ann,
He hugged and kissed her just before he died,
Saying, "Pollie, do the very best you can."

 John Henry's woman heard he was dead,
 She could not rest on her bed,
She got up at midnight, caught that No. 4 train,
"I am going where John Henry fell dead."

 They carried John Henry to that new burying ground
 His wife all dressed in blue,
She laid her hand on John Henry's cold face,
"John Henry I've been true to you."

Here to find John Henry Resource Material

John Henry and Literature

The legend of John Henry was the inspiration for the third version of the DC Comics superhero Steel — also known as John Henry Irons. He is depicted fighting the Ku Klux Klan in the Southern United States in the 2003 limited series DC: The New Frontier, set in the 1950s.

John Henry is also the character in a book called Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.

John Henry Legend Animation Part One of Two

John Henry Legend Animation Part Two of Two

John Henry Songs

Bill Monroe, "The Father of Bluegrass Music," sings "Nine Pound Hammer", which has become a standard. John Henry Brown is the main character in the song "Walk on Boy" recorded by Doc Watson. Dave Dudley wrote his own variation called "John Henry", as did Tennessee Ernie Ford. Johnny Cash wrote and performed "The Legend of John Henry's Hammer", one of many requested songs he performed at Folsom Prison, California in 1968. Tom T. Hall performed "More About John Henry",.

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    • Wbisbill LM profile imageAUTHOR

      Barbara Isbill 

      5 years ago from New Market Tn 37820

      @Aunt-Mollie: Thanks, have a great day!

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      I never knew the history of this ballad. Thank you for the explanation.

    • Wbisbill LM profile imageAUTHOR

      Barbara Isbill 

      6 years ago from New Market Tn 37820

      @celtman17 lm: Thanks for visit and info!

    • Wbisbill LM profile imageAUTHOR

      Barbara Isbill 

      6 years ago from New Market Tn 37820

      @celtman17 lm: Thanks for visit and info!

    • celtman17 lm profile image

      celtman17 lm 

      6 years ago

      Joe Bonamassa does a great song called the Ballad of John Henry

    • Nightcat profile image


      6 years ago

      Lovely and moving, thank you! Blessed!

    • blue22d profile image


      7 years ago

      Nicely done. I love your color palette. Always enjoy history and Folklore.

    • SAMEPRINCESS10 profile image


      8 years ago

      I like the title of John Henry Folklore.

    • Philippians468 profile image


      8 years ago

      wow interesting lens! great job! cheers

    • annrhi profile image


      8 years ago

      I knew of John Henry through the Springsteen song, on the Seegar Sessuions album, had no idea he was a real person. Very interesting lens, indeed, and thanks for your comments on our Charles Dickens lens


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