John Henry Legend

Radio Documentary




John Henry Legend


Scholarly | For Children | Other

  • Chappell, Louis W. "John Henry: A Folk-lore Study." Kennikat Press, 1968 (Reprint of the 1933 edition).

  • Johnson, Guy B. "John Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend." University of North Carolina, 1929.

    In the 1920's, two professors gathered oral histories from native West Virginians about John Henry. Sixty years had passed since the legendary race, so the authors found no living primary sources and no conclusive proof that John Henry existed. Still, they unearthed a lot of fascinating material that makes a strong case for the truth behind the legend.

  • Williams, Bret. "John Henry: A Bio-Bibliography." Greenwood Press, 1983.

    The only contemporary academic work I know of that's devoted entirely to John Henry. Drawing on her own research as well as Chappell's, Johnson's and others', the author constructs an image of John Henry, and looks at his role in and lasting impact on American culture.

  • Cohen, Norm. "Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong." University of Illinois Press, 1981

    An overview of the genesis and importance of the legend, with a detailed bibliography that includes worthwhile sources not listed here.

  • Green, Archie. "Wobblies, Pile Butts, and Other Heroes: Laborlore Explorations." University of Illinois Press, 1993.

    Through the lens of a labor folklorist, an examination of John Henry as expressed in visual art.


For Children
  • Bice, David A. "The Legend of John Henry: The Steel Drivin' Man." Engish Books, 1980.

  • Keats, Ezra Jack. "John Henry: An American Legend." Pantheon, 1965.

    A longtime favorite. Keats' writing reveals his passion for the legend.

  • Lester, Julius. "John Henry." Dial Books, 1994.

    A contemporary offering by a talented team. Lester's imaginative, lively text is rooted in oral tradition. Illustrations by Jerry Pinkney are beautifully- rendered and powerful.


  • "West Virginia: A Guide to the Mountain State." Oxford Press, 1941.

    This volume from the American Guide Series, a project of the Writers' Program of the WPA, is a tour through West Virginia, with some original John Henry material.

  • Botkin, B.A. "A Treasury of American Folklore." Crown Publishers, 1944.

    In a well-intentioned but patronizing tone typical of the era ("John Henry stands for something which the pick-and-shovel Negro idolizes -- brute strength"), Botkin discusses John Henry as hero and role model. Valuable as a concise distillation of numerous sources, it includes one of the longest versions of the ballad I've seen: 19 verses.










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