“John Henry”


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

  • Shelton Brothers, "New John Henry Blues" (Decca 5173, 1936)

Cross references


  • Rich Amerson, "John Henry" (on NFMAla3)
  • DeFord Bailey, "John Henry" (Victor 23336, 1932/Victor 23831, 1933; rec. 1928)
  • James "Iron Head" Baker, "Little John Henry" (AFS 202 A1, 1934) (AFS 1853 B1, 1853 B2, 1937)
  • Dock Boggs, "John Henry" (on Boggs2, BoggsCD1)
  • Big Bill Broonzy, "John Henry" (on Broonzy01)
  • Callahan Brothers, "John Henry" (Decca 5998, 1941)
  • Fiddlin' John Carson, "John Henry Blues" (OKeh 7004, 1924)
  • Bill Cornett ,"John Henry" (on MMOKCD)
  • (Joe) Evans & (Arthur) McClain, "John Henry Blues" (Oriole 8080/Perfect 181/Romeo 5080/Conqueror 7876, all 1931; on BefBlues3)
  • G. B. Grayson and Henry Whitter, "John Henry the Steel Driving Man" (Gennett, unissued, 1927)
  • Fruit Jar Guzzlers, "Steel Driving Man" (Broadway 8199, 1928; on TimesAint03)
  • Woody Guthrie, "John Henry" (Stinson 628, mid-1940s)
  • Willie Hamilton, "John Henry" (on HandMeDown1)
  • Vera Hall, "John Henry" (AFS 1320 A2, 1937) [Note: Dixon/Godrich/Rye also identifies this AFS number with a Vera Hall recording of "Po' Laz'us"; one of them is clearly in error, but I don't know which - PJS]
  • Sid Harkreader, "John Henry" (Broadway 8114, c. 1930)
  • Sid Hemphill, "John Henry" (on LomaxCD1700)
  • Doc Hopkins, "John Henry" (Radio 1411, n.d.)
  • Furry Lewis, "John Henry" (on FLewis01, DownHome)
  • Earl Johnson & his Dixie Entertainers, "John Henry Blues" (OKeh 45101, 1927; on TimesAint02, ConstSor1)
  • Buell Kazee, "John Henry" (on Kazee01)
  • Ed Lewis, "John Henry" (on LomaxCD1705)
  • Furry Lewis, "John Henry (The Steel Driving Man), parts 1 & 2" (Vocalion 1474, 1930; rec. 1929)
  • Uncle Dave Macon, "The Death of John Henry" (Vocalion 15320, 1926) (Brunswick 112, 1927; Brunswick 80091, n.d.)
  • J. E. Mainer's Mountaineers, "John Henry was a Little Boy" (Bluebird B-6629, 1936); "John Henry" (King 550, 1946)
  • Earl McCoy, Alfred Meng & Clem Garner, "John Henry" (Columbia 15622-D, 1930)
  • New Lost City Ramblers, "John Henry" (on NLCR05)
  • Virgil Perkins & Jack Sims, "John Henry" (on FMUSA, AmSkBa)
  • Pete Seeger, "John Henry" (on PeteSeeger05) (on PeteSeeger16) (on PeteSeeger47) (on PeteSeeger23)
  • Ernest V. Stoneman, "John Henry" (Edison 51869, 1926) (CYL: Edison [BA] 5194, 1926)
  • Glen Stoneman, George Stoneman & James Lindsay, "John Henry" [instrumental] (on LomaxCD1702)
  • Gid Tanner & Riley Puckett, "John Henry" (Columbia 15019-D, 1924; Silvertone 3262, 1926 [as Gibbs & Watson])
  • Gid Tanner & his Skillet Lickers, "John Henry" (Columbia 15142-D, 1927)
  • Henry Thomas, "John Henry" (Vocalion 1094, 1927)
  • Welby Toomey, "Death of John Henry" (Champion 15198/Silvertone 5002, 1927)
  • Willie Turner, "John Henry" (on NFMAla6)
  • Doc Watson, Gaither Carlton & Arnold Watson, "John Henry" (on WatsonAshley01)
  • Williamson Bros. & Curry, "Gonna Die With My Hammer In My Hand" (OKeh 45127, 1927; on AAFM1, TimesAin't3)
  • Martin Young & Corbett Grigsby, "John Henry" [instrumental] (on MMOKCD)


  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


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1909 (JAFL)
Found in: US(Ap,MA,MW,SE,So)