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American Hero

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A Note to Teachers

The various versions of the John Henry legend touch on many more themes in American history and culture than we could include on this page. Some or all may be appropriate for class discussion: to name a few, the lives of African-Americans after the Civil War, the building of the railroads, the folk tradition of tall tales, the workingman’s fight against the inevitable mechanization of labor, prison conditions (in some versions, the railroad crew is a chain gang), and the tragic hero. Each of these threads offers a sweeping context for John Henry’s words in the song of the same name: “A man ain’t nothin’ but a man.”

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Telling the Tale

John Henry is our most recent Keats animated read-aloud

Getting the Story Straight

John Henry Museum

John-Henry-MuseumThe Great Bend railway tunnel, in Talcott, West Virginia, is proclaimed as the site of the legendary contest between John Henry and a steam-powered drill. An imposing iron statue marks the spot. (The historical John Henry is also claimed by Alabama, Virginia and Georgia.) A museum dedicated to John Henry’s life and legend opened in the oldest building in town, now beautifully restored. There is still work to do, says Larry Moorman, President of the John Henry Historical Society. Next up: a 26-acre park being developed at the tunnel site, future home to the annual summer festival John Henry Days.

Singing the Blues

The story of John Henry brings out the virtuosity in musicians, whichever one of the many versions and instruments they choose to play. Here, a sample of some of the best:

Fun Fact

With all the songs and stories about John Henry that Ezra could have adapted, he decided to write his own version. He wanted to portray the man as well as the legendary figure. It is the illustrations that tell a bigger story, mixing history, realism and myth in a bold, graphic style.