Finding John Henry: Examining the Legend, the Ballad, and the Man

41st Annual Appalachian Studies Conference:

Re-stitching the Seams: Appalachia Beyond Its Borders

Millennium Hotel, Cincinnati, OH

Proposal Category: Paper

Type of Presentation:

Subject: Folklore/History

Media Needs: Powerpoint, Internet, possible viewing screen

Presenter: Breanna Gladden


Abstract: Finding John Henry: Examining the Legend, the Ballad, and the Man

For most who hear the name John Henry, he is quickly associated with other great folk legends such as Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan. This association seems especially appropriate as John Henry’s tale was primarily spread by oral tradition in the form of track songs by contracted railroad workers and later by coal miners and mill workers. But John Henry was more than a character from American Folklore. His story spread with the railroad itself, traveling along the tracks of the railway where his work began and across America. His story was embraced even by coal-miners who related to his plight and began the first variations of the original John Henry ballad, as it began to evolve and change. Victor Hugo in his book Ninety-Three states: “History has its truth, and so has legend. Legendary truth is of another nature than historical truth. Legendary truth is invention whose result is reality. Furthermore, history and legend have the same goal; to depict eternal man beneath momentary man.” This paper will explore the evolution of the legend of John Henry and its social significance to the region yesterday and today.